15th April 2020
Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (John Keats, 1819)
As the global community races to save lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic, issues of brand and business have been moved to the back burner. The priority today is more basic: Reduce the rate of infection and stop the virus. Once that happens, however, brands will endeavor to help their customers regain some of what’s been lost.
Because of the outbreak, and the unprecedented measures being taken to “flatten the curve,” priorities are shifting in fundamental ways. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicts that the effects of the pandemic will be “imprinted on the personality of our nation” for years to come. Normalcy will return, as it almost always does, but not as it was.
McKinsey & Company partners Kevin Sneader and Shubham Singhal have already dubbed the post-COVID-19 era “the next normal.” In their article, “Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal,” they describe “…a dramatic restructuring of the economic and social order in which business and society have traditionally operated.”
Beyond the market implications, it’s shocking how quickly the pandemic has made so many of us rethink personal and professional priorities that seemed immutable just weeks ago. Reminded of our inescapable frailties, and quarantined to our homes for the good of ourselves and our communities, we are confronting issues of life and mortality in unexpected ways.
In her recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, Nashville-based author Margaret Renkl catalogs the palpable fear. “Every online gathering, every phone call, every just-saying-hey email carries an undercurrent of mortality,” she writes. “Even if we don’t say it out loud, we recognize that our time for checking in may run out. This is not breaking news, of course. We have always been mortal beings, but until life serves up a memento mori like the new coronavirus, people tend to spend each day as though they had an endless supply of days.”
This uncertain time has me thinking about the climactic scene in “Almost Famous,” Cameron Crowe’s heartfelt homage to mid-‘70s rock-and-roll. Flying through a thunderstorm in their small chartered plane, members of the film’s fictional band embrace the moment—could it be their last?—to come clean about who they are and what they’ve done. Quickly and comically, infidelities are acknowledged, the band’s gonzo drummer comes out as gay, and its manager admits to a vehicular hit-and-run that “may have killed a man.” Then, just as quickly, the storm dissipates, and the survival of all is…gulp…assured.
The point is this: When we run out of time, the only thing that matters is the truth. And that means getting right with our loved ones so we can live with ourselves. In this time of the coronavirus, we’re all trapped in that rickety little plane hurtling toward some craggy Mississippi cotton field. Things feel dire now, but, like in the film, the plane’s going to right itself and land safely “somewhere near Tupelo.” Will brands be ready when it does?
Few seem ready as of yet. From the onset of the pandemic, the typical marketing message has been an innocuous “We’re here for you,” even if that’s the last thing customers need or want. It may be time to step back and view “the next normal” as an opportunity for deeper engagement. As customer priorities shift toward staying true to one’s self, brands can leverage the authentic goodness in their people and products. In fact, celebrating that goodness in credible, honorable ways may be the best we can do.
In an interview for Campaign magazine, Jonathan Kneebone, founding partner of Sydney-based The Glue Society, addresses the vital role of creative marketers in a world in which we are all struggling to find positives. “It’s up to us as people who problem-solve to be aware of people’s spirits and respect them,” he says.
Despite the best efforts of creative thinkers, not every brand will successfully adapt its message to fit the moment. For those that do, harnessing basic human truths will serve them well. Jason Bagley, an executive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy Portland, tells HuffPost, “People are looking for truth, authenticity and human connection from brands more than ever.”
“The bigger thing is what type of communication is going to be right in this new atmosphere,” says The Glue Society’s Kneebone. “It will be things that are more playful and entertaining to lift everyone’s spirits, or something more considerate and supportive, while not appearing to be making light of anything or throwing money around when some people don’t have any. The common thread will be connection and community. It will be about being more humane and having some humility.”
As if on cue, Apple’s newest video focuses on how community and creativity will get us through these difficult times. Sure, it’s predictable. But it’s also powerful and completely in line with the brand’s values as viewed through the lens of its products.
And, of course, it’s only the beginning. The coming “normalcy blitz” may be unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes, at least since the period after 9/11. How else to predict the volcanic response to experiences few of us have ever faced—yet of which all of us can now relate?
“What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again,” writes independent filmmaker Julio Vincent Gambuto in Forge. “It will come from brands, it will come from government, it will even come from each other, and it will come from the left and from the right. We will do anything, spend anything, believe anything, just so we can take away how horribly uncomfortable all of this feels.”
So, we marketers have an important choice to make on behalf of our clients: add to the noise or elevate the conversation. I’ll be on the side of the beautiful truth.