Coming out the Other Side of a Pandemic

Crises are great truth-tellers. Brands are, in real-time, going through the crash course in social responsibility, and there are already winners and losers. Winners acknowledge what their customers are going through. Losers are pitching Mother’s Day sales and charging a premium for medical masks on eBay.

Crises expose the truth about a company.

They expose organizational and operational strengths and weaknesses. They challenge leadership. They bring about business disruption, revenue drops, layoffs, and the pressure to reduce expenses and find new ways of making money.

Crises seem to particularly accelerate transformation of industries that are already in flux, like publishing and retail. Publishers are preparing for a 30% drop in forecasted revenue; the figure for fashion retail is between 25% and 35%.

But crises also offer a creative toolbox. They force a shift in thinking and action, and force businesses to address problems in new ways. In the process, a business may stumble upon a great new idea, discover an unexpected revenue stream, take a risk it was too cautious to consider before, or find a way to be closer to the community it serves.

If there’s one lasting change from this crisis, it’s that brands will have to become as pro-social as they are pro-economic.

Here is what works:

Meet customers where they are

The first step in any good brand communication is to acknowledge your customers’ needs.

Right now, we all need some inspiration and uplifting communication. “Get up and get dressed for a positive state of mind” works better than “shop 50% off.”

Direct-to-consumer brands, on the other hand, are leading the way.

Olive oil producer Brightland launched a new digital series, On the Bright Side, that revolves around food, art, and wellness: “In these times of uncertainty, we hope we can still inspire you to continue #livinginagoldenstate,” the brand wrote.

There’s also The Joycast, a free text line from swimwear brand Summersalt where members of the company’s “Customer Happiness” team share meditation videos, GIFs, self-care ideas, and general hope.

Brightland and Summersalt succeed because their output isn’t about them. They also succeed because they use a tone of voice that’s uniquely their own.

Distribute your expertise in a new way

Brands’ survival depends on their ability to package and deliver their expertise beyond their original business model. Even if consumers are not spending at the moment, they still seek acknowledgment, inspiration, advice, guidance, education, and entertainment from brands.

What once was a value-add is now a brand’s lifeline.

This doesn’t mean that every brand should share meditation videos or Spotify playlists of monks chanting. It means that they need to lean into their own expertise, be it finance and economics, manufacturing, supply-chain management, operations, or Instagram creative.

Offer business-development courses centered on remote working; help startup founders to become financially literate.

Every company has a number of areas of expertise. Capitalize on them.

We’re seeing this with fitness companies sharing online classes and fitness regimens, cookware companies leading brand actions with recipes, food companies focusing on health, and hospitality companies delivering perks like sound baths at a distance.

There’s a massive opportunity for other verticals to capitalize on the shift from products to content, from events to subscriptions, from transaction to inspiration, from buying to socializing.

Consider it a necessary business adjustment.

Shift from a traditional mindset to an innovative one

Restaurants, pharmacies, and grocery stores have shifted to drive-through service. Revenue from food delivery overtook on-premise dining even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that is only accelerating. It is also getting more nuanced.

Online shopping sites will take a cue from theme parks, ski resorts, fitness studios, and some restaurants who offer variable ticket pricing based on date, time, or location — and offer discounts for less busy days and charge extra for peak times.

They will move beyond rigid ordering and delivery processes and create more flexible, tiered programs that range from basic delivery to high-end concierge care — customized based on the contents of a shopper’s cart.

There’s also a need to go beyond just-in-time inventory management systems, which are convenient and cost effective, but ultimately fragile.

AI will play a role in projecting demand in crisis, something supermarkets didn’t have at their disposal this time around. A more flexible thinking applies to online orders and deliveries across industries, from fashion apparel to home decor to pet care to wellness and beauty.

The entire area of supply and demand and customer service will rapidly innovate, driven by current inefficiencies and bottlenecks.

Create new markets

When New York City’s lockdown started, I begged both my facialist and colorist to start a “how-to” instructional video series. It sadly didn’t happen; my facialist has two young kids to homeschool, and my hair colorist is French.

But the market for remote beauty care is immense.

Chances are that it will stay that way once the pandemic is over, with far-flung audiences wanting easily accessible skincare and haircare expertise.

Tmall, Alibaba Group’s online-shopping platform, and Shanghai Fashion Week partnered on a series of entirely livestreamed, “see now, buy now” fashion shows, where designers and brands presented their upcoming collections directly to millions of active users — and allowed those users to shop directly from their smartphones. That’s a game changer.

The Metropolitan Opera started livestreaming its past performances, which is both a public service and a potential way to expand its market and build new revenue streams.

Michelin-starred restaurateur and chef Massimo Bottura created a cooking show, “Kitchen Quarantine,” from his own kitchen. Beyond the pandemic, this kind of content and chef exposure can be a great restaurant-marketing tactic and value-add.

In an accelerated future scenario, opt-in livestreaming may become lifestyle brands’ preferred mode of advertising: Tune in and see live entertainment and demonstration of a cookware, an outfit, or a way to apply beauty products.

Prioritize social responsibility, sustainability, and transparency

Personal experience of hardship makes a difference, and there is hardly a better time to accelerate brands’ corporate transformation toward greater sustainability, more transparent corporate governance, and more socially responsible operations.

Just as those living in poor countries feel the effects of climate crisis more acutely than those living in the developed ones, we are becoming more attuned to global emergencies and to the role of our social, political, and economic institutions in addressing them.

We expect our brands to embrace their social responsibility and act on it.

Every brand should start thinking like a B Corp.

Activate behavioral contagion

With luck, the COVID-19 pandemic will give rise to another form of contagion: behavioral.

Brands must ask how they can activate their brand communities to do something good in society. How can they set an example of positive influence that trickles down into customers’ communities?

In the past, smoking rose and fell thanks to behavioral contagion. Today, some activities and areas, like sustainability and how we eat, are subject to it. We are all fasting, juicing, and doing lymphatic drainage massages. If our neighbors install solar panels, we do it too.

Our instinct to imitate and conform should be leveraged for good (maybe one day buying from Zara will seem as uncool as smoking).

Right now, we are seeing examples of social shaming for exhibited lack of social distancing; once the pandemic is over, brands can do social good by encouraging behavioral mimicry (and not just in terms of Instagram aesthetic).

Brands with established communities — like Glossier, DÔEN, and Tracksmith — can use peer pressure to impose positive social action. But any brand with a customer base, from Coca-Cola to Unilever to LEGO, can also mobilize peer pressure.

Peer pressure can change both our behavior and the way we view the world. Used in the right way, it can be a powerful tool to encourage more generous, responsible, and compassionate behavior.

Lean into a slower pace of life

Before the global pandemic, it was popular to discuss the damage of social media to our brains, psyches, and social lives. Artist Jenny Odell even wrote a book about How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. But most of us have no idea how to do nothing. The present moment offers a good opportunity to learn.

We all loved hearing about the benefits of wasting time and the dangers of hustle porn. Now it’s the time to embrace it. Our belief that we are too busy to cook, exercise, sleep, watch TV, see a doctor, shop for clothes, or get over a jet lag led to an entire economy based on outsourcing and delivering these services.

We will become busy again, but we can use this forced time off to create a more balanced existence. We can be free of guilt to set the time aside for cooking, taking walks, checking in on friends, and helping the elderly.

Brands can enforce this narrative shift through their advertising creative: Don’t show busy professionals; show someone cooking with their grandmother who survived COVID-19 thanks to the protection of her community.

Capitalize on restraint as the new aspiration

Macroeconomic changes brought on by the pandemic will undoubtedly enforce economic restraint. Our current social distancing may enforce a societal one.

We may become more likely to consider the impact of our individual actions on our community and be aware of collective benefits (or lack thereof) of our decisions.

Brands can capitalize on restraint as the new aspiration by putting forward social values of generosity, compassion, and gratitude, and acting on them through their content, communication, and brand behaviors.

There are car companies encouraging drivers to stay off the road, and travel companies encouraging people not to travel. This is a social service that should continue beyond this crisis.

Shift from the outside to the inside

If the latest trend in travel is any indication, the affluent now travel for learning, not leisure — and for transformation, not thrill. Fixing broken pottery, enjoying rituals, or retreating to a monastery required a trek across the world. But these things can also be practiced at one’s own home.

It’s good for our planet if we stay in. It’s good for us to sit quietly. We should learn both.

We may recognize the superficiality, mimicry, impermanence, and stupidity of chasing the latest Instagrammable street, neighborhood, or vista. In contrast, livestreamed sound baths or at-home recreation of Japanese listening bars may bring us equal delight, save the planet and our money.

Brands can play a big role in quashing the addiction to ever-new experiences, and helping us better absorb the experiences we’ve already had. These experiences can be both communal and personal (a reliving of a trip to the London Olympics, a Super Bowl game, or even just last summer’s vacation).

Partner with content producers and curate branded compilations of movies and other content for your customers to watch at home.

Consider launching a new product line

In 2017, the global market for “incident and emergency management” was valued at $75.5 billion.

By 2025, it’s projected to reach $423 billion.

Brands like Pottery Barn are launching survival kits that contain everything from shelf-stable foods and hand-crank radios to high-end facial products. It may become something in every brand’s product portfolio going forward.

Named to Forbes CMO Next, Ana Andjelic is a Strategy Executive and Doctor of Sociology. She runs a weekly newsletter, The Sociology of Business, and is author of The Business of Aspiration, out from Taylor & Francis in the Fall of 2020, available for pre-order now.

More from Shared Future