In the face of a crisis

2020 was always going to be a year for change for Britain. After all it was the year we were going to ‘Get Brexit done!’ But I don’t think any of us could have predicted quite how existential the changes would be. And we’re barely out of Q1.

COVID-19 has swept in like a tidal wave. And whilst some industries are able to adapt, others are struggling more than recent memory can recall.

For a business in this situation, the natural response is to try and survive the immediate challenge, take it day by day and continue to make temporary changes whilst we wait for normality to resume.

But this is unlike anything we’ve seen before. We have nothing to compare this crisis to. And no experience to draw on.

The closest industry crisis many are referring to is 9/11. But the damage to even just the aviation industry is already greater, more immediate and longer lasting. The UK aviation industry are reportedly asking chancellor Sunak for a £7.5b bailout fund, which is nothing in comparison to the $50b request in the US. That’s more than three times more than the bailout following 9/11.

Normal, or a return to where we were pre COVID-19 doesn’t feel like an option. And whilst this will continue to be an immensely difficult time for us all for many months, even years to come, there are some positives to draw on.

Firstly, whilst businesses and the economy may be in threat of decline, the effect on the planet is seemingly the opposite. In this article by Professor John Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography (University of Birmingham), he talks about the positive impact that behavioural changes, due to COVID-19 are having on the environment. That they are greater and more immediate than those of the Thunberg effect. A dramatic reduction in China’s pollution, the canals clear in Italy with fish and life return to the once bustling water highways. 

Secondly, although self-isolation for you and I is a temporary, uncomfortable life change. For the 1.2 million chronically lonely people over 50 in the UK, it is life. Everyday. With or without this killer virus. One hugely positive effect of COVID-19 is that we are reaching out to our neighbours. Calling on elderly, lonely members of our community and asking if we can help. Just checking in, for many of these people will be a hugely positive change. One that will hopefully leave a long-lasting realisation that we simply need to do more for each other.

We have also seen so many examples of brands stepping up to play meaningful roles in the moments that matter. LMVH switched production of luxury goods like Christian Dior perfume to making hand sanitiser to supply all French hospitals for free. Their share prices finished +6% at the time of writing. Or in the way Anheuser Busch continue to switch production from Beer to canned water to send as aid during many different global events including the recent Australia Bush fires and closer to home supporting those affected by Tornados, Floods and other natural disasters.

We’re not talking about selling products we’re talking about having the courage and quick decision-making ability to find creative solutions to real world problems, to help humanity.

This is not to underplay what is patently clear, these are challenging times for businesses.

But it is also a potential opportunity for us all to build a better Britain together, with more focus on better work life balance, on doing the right thing and not the easy thing. And for brands to re-evaluate their role in society.

At McCann our very purpose is to help brands build meaningful roles, no time in modern history has that felt more relevant than right now. We’re advising some of the largest businesses in the world right now on how to have the courage to have a voice and navigate these challenging times. And whilst no business or solution is the same, there are commonalities in our approach that are worth considering.

In the beginning: Be the peoples champion

By this we don’t mean switching archetype, this is not about that, it’s about understanding people and how those people are feeling in the midst of this crisis. Their fears, anxieties and concerns. We need to know them. (Employees as well as customers) And work really hard to keep close to them. As we have seen with COVID-19, these feelings change rapidly.

When we know their wants and needs, we should find the relevant right times, places and spaces to have meaningful and relevant interactions. This is not about selling but demonstrating a meaningful role in lives of the people affected. We have seen this in the LMVH and Anheuser Busch examples earlier.

Phase two: Be there when they need us

As we enter the sustained phase of a crisis, both our need to start selling and our customers desire to buy will return. How we respond depends on our category, product type and price point.

As with phase one, we need to ensure we are totally in tune with the mindset of our target customers. Sell too early and we look like we are profiteering from a crisis, sell too late and we risk missing the moment of need. Ensuring we have remained in our customers lives throughout the crisis and in a supportive way will enable us to respond appropriately and sensitively.

Importantly, if we have built positive brand engagement during phase one for helpful, fun content that does not sell, we should continue to do this alongside acquisition comms. A straight switch from engaging to selling would render our efforts to build brand as shallow (which would be a fair observation).

Finally, be prepared: Change is not coming. It’s here.

So, what about the new normal? When it comes to COVID-19, the long-term impact on our work life balance, personal relationships, shopping habits and travel choices may long outlive this virus. We need to start to prepare for that now.

Ask yourself as we head into these most challenging weeks, what could the new normal look like for us as a business? How are we going to get there?

And do we have the creative courage needed to make the change?

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