ReUnited Kingdoms #7: Looking forward as well as back

Shifting the emphasis to the future

As lockdown restrictions continue to ease, as some businesses reopen and as we collectively start to think about the future, our “ReUnited Kingdoms” content series has been exploring various aspects of life beyond lockdown. In this piece we look at complex relationship between past, present and future, looking particularly at how we can all play our part in creating a better society.

What to do when the here and now is so bleak

There’s not really any way of getting away from it: #2020 sucks.

Not only are we in the midst of the worst global health crisis in living memory, but all projections suggest we’ll stagger straight from COVID-19 into a profound global recession. And, it is not as if 2019 was that much better: The Brexit saga created a deep sense of division around the UK and the climate crisis dominated the news.

When the here and now is unremittingly bleak people tend to react in a number of different ways:

  • Fatalistic wallowing and gallows humour: During the dark days of the global economic crisis of 2007-2009, several of the big movies of the time (eg. I am Legend (2007) and 2012 (2009) seemed to adopt the tone of “if you think things are bad, just take a look at how bad it could be”!
  • Head in the sand escapism: At the same time, this was also the age of super escapism, with movies like Mamma Mia (2008) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) seeking to provide hope and joy amidst the gloom
  • Basking in the glow of nostalgia: back to the days when the summers were hotter, times were better, and life was simpler
  • Utopian future-gazing: Films like Tomorrowland (2015) paint an optimistic vision of life in the future

To make ourselves feel less gloomy, we are faced with a straight choice between looking backwards to when things were better or looking forwards to when they (hopefully) will be better. Given that the future is shrouded in uncertainty, over COVID (Will a vaccine be available? Will our societal immunity be sufficient to prevent a second wave?), over the economic and political landscapes and over global climate change, it should be no surprise that people are finding it easier to think about the past than the future.

“You realise that our mistrust of the future makes it hard to give up the past.”

Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor

Despite this, nostalgia-based approaches make fantastic sense for brands right now on a number of levels not just for the feelgood factor they can evoke. They also make great commercial and logistical sense too: reusing a much-loved and well-recognised spot from yesteryear will make the CFO very happy; and, the social distancing difficulties involved in creating new footage provide another

Not surprising then that we are seeing a raft of nostalgic advertising and content offerings, from the likes of HondaAmul, ITV’s Alan Carr Epic Gameshow and BBC Sport, ITV Sport and Channel 4 replaying classic matches from Euro 96 or the 1966 World Cup.

It is also worth bearing in mind the 30-year cycle. Academic research suggests that cultural trends and therefore nostalgia moves in 30-year patterns. Having just switched over from the 10’s to the 20’s we should expect references from the 1990s to begin to have more resonance than those from the 1980s which we had been seeing in everything from Stranger Things to Ready Player One.

This is a theme that will be explored more in an upcoming webinar from Fever and Walnut Unlimited, our communications and data and insights specialist agencies. We’ll be sure to keep you updated with more details but be sure to hold the date – July 14th – in your calendars.

But, our relationship with the past is not straightforward right now

However, we have seen over the past week or two that not everything from the past is viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. Content from the past may not reflect the values, codes or conventions of today’s society or, worse, stir up very deeply held feelings.

Content from the past may not fit the present
For all that NBC show Friends rapidly became a major ratings hit when it was made available on Netflix, it didn’t please everyone, with millennials in particular shocked by some of the storylines (featuring homophobia, traditional gender roles, fat suits and a lack of diversity). The recent discussion around episodes/shows like Fawlty TowersGavin & StaceyBo Selecta & Little Britain and the delisting of the content that followed in some cases, shows that sometimes it is not as straightforward as lifting a piece of content from the past and replaying it today.

#statuesmustfall and #statuesmuststay
Over recent days, Britain’s relationship with its past (either glorious or imperialist depending upon your point of view) has created both online debate and direct, and sometimes violent, action. This has coalesced around two conflicting hashtags: #statuesmustfall and #statuesmuststay. With such close scrutiny being applied to historical figures, events and legacies, any brands seeking to leverage their ancestral assets will need to tread very carefully indeed.

The importance of looking forward as well as back
While accepting the argument that “he who doesn’t learn from history is doomed to repeat it”, we also believe that the time is right for thinking and planning to transition into a forward-facing view. Google returns some 1.94 million results to the search string “creating a better world after COVID”, including thought-pieces from across the political spectrum from the likes of the WEF, the LSE, Big Issue, CNN, The Guardian and the Telegraph so it seems like the online world agrees.

One of the benefits of looking forwards rather than backwards is that, while nostalgia is largely a messaging/content vehicle, looking forwards opens up routes for both messaging/content (see our list of marcoms power words below) and product and service innovation (in the form of new features and benefits).  The recent work of TMW Unlimited, our marketing agency, for Travelzoo showcases perfectly how to instil a mood of optimism in your target audience and encourage forward momentum in a marketplace paralysed by lockdown, by stressing key product features (i.e. that offers were refundable or had extra flexibility like ‘no change fees’ for holidays).

The value of togetherness

As advertisers have been all too keen to point out “we’re all in this together” and this will be as true during the recovery as it was during the darkest days of lockdown.

In fact, we’ve seen this kind of thing messaging before – for example in the 2008 economic crisis. Our American cousins, for example, have long believed it is the collective responsibility of everyone to get the economy moving after crisis-driven setbacks, and that consumers must do their part, even positioning such activity as a “patriotic duty” (link). We are now starting to see similar bonding messaging in the UK, such as from The Sun newspaper, which launched their Bounce Back Britain campaign last week, around a platform of creating momentum around “Shops, Jobs, Health, Fun and Footie”

Forward-facing marcoms tactics

Helping consumers to see beyond the doom and gloom will require considerable effort and creativity. Consider building campaigns about some of these post-COVID power words: hope, optimism, promise, potential, planning, future, guarantee, opportunity, progress, togetherness, unity, consensus, tolerance, respect, agreement, harmony, joy, calm, happiness.

Away from marcoms

Looking towards the future will require more than just entertaining messaging. Getting consumers back into stores and/or spending money will require a careful blend of retailing strategies that are safety-first and context-aware (in the sense of recognising the economic uncertainty that can act as a brake to consumer spending, with product features that overcome barriers to purchase.

  • Retail strategies: social distancing to keep customers safe, look after retail staff (and be seen to be doing so), touch-free retail, contactless payments, price discounting, BOGOFs, stock clearances, ramped-up omnichannel, encouraging “revenge spending” (=consumers’ desire to splurge on luxuries and other non-essential items as a way to celebrate the loosening of lockdowns), let consumers book time in-store, don’t assume that you will go back to your pre-outbreak world, be prepared to make the case that consumers should buy at all
  • Desirable product features: Payment deferral, money-back guarantees, no quibble returns, forward planning tools, seamless price comparison.

As we transition out of this phase of COVID, we will enter new phases each with their own unique challenges and requirements. The availability of a vaccine (or the continued lack of one), the development of herd immunity and/or access to widespread treatments or mitigations for those who do become infected, are all likely to drive subtly different behaviours and attitudes from consumers, meaning that this list of prompts will need to be reviewed and updated, regularly. The future starts here.

This article was written by our Head of Trends, Nick Chiarelli