It took me a few days to realise that we're not going back.
To begin with, I was working under the tacit assumption that everything was just going to begin again in a few months. That we were living in shit-Christmas, with the world on pause (but without the fun and the presents).
Now I know that’s not going to happen.
We have, in the past, talked of trends and generations, how cultural and world events have shaped millennials and Generation Z. We talk of the formative effect of shocks, such as the 2008 financial crisis or the subsequent ubiquity of mobile internet. Sometimes we might even give these people names that connect them to the event, such as Generation Debt or the Smartphone Generation.
Well, now we’re all in it together as one: Generation Lockdown.
I don’t do hyperbole and I dislike following trends, but there’s no doubt that this is the biggest global event since the Second World War. It has pulled in the role of government, personal freedom, attitude to strangers, global travel, personal health, mental health, attitude to death, community—everything.
We will remember this forever and it will change everything forever in ways that we cannot know or predict.
If you think you can predict the consequences, then have a look at a few company annual reports from 2019 (hey, I know, but I have some time on my hands). They all have a section on "risk". They tend to talk about things such as Brexit or government regulation. None of them mentions a devastating global pandemic and the biggest drop in financial markets in history. It feels like they were written in a parallel universe.
Have a look at the positioning ideas you were playing around with just a couple of weeks ago. You might have thought about freedom, certainty, optimism, exploration. Do those things feel the same at the moment?
All of us need to take a deep breath, tear up the way we thought about our brands and the attitudes of the people we hoped would buy them, and think again.
Brands that fail to acknowledge the times we live in will look and feel hopelessly out of step. (Drag yourself away from Netflix and watch a bit of commercial TV and you will see what I mean, with all those pre-crisis ads still staggering around like visitors from another planet.)
This doesn’t need to be explicit acknowledgement; much more important is to have a clear view on the emotional role of your brand post-crisis. And to have done something during the crisis that helped make things better for someone (what did you do in the war, Daddy?).
There are some historical precedents for this—maybe in the decadence of the Weimar Republic or the roaring 1920s—but they’re few and far between. We have no map. And we’re certainly not in Kansas any more.
The only thing for sure is that everything has changed and those plans you put on hold can’t just be reheated in the microwave. Your success in the coming years will depend on how closely you’re paying attention right now. Nobody knows what will happen. But with the right emotional intelligence, we might be able to shape what happens and how everyone feels about it.
We’re all building the world to come together. This is the work of our lives.
Are you ready?
Craig Mawdsley is joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.