The post-COVID scenarios, their implications and opportunities for brands, marketers and our industry
The marketing communications industry is a catalyst of knowledge, talent and economic growth. Nonetheless, the strategic deployment of marketing has lost substantial ground due to the tweaking of messages and channels. The crisis ignited by the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that more apparent, creating a climate of uncertainty and decreased confidence. The knee-jerk reaction from marketers suspending, freezing or cutting their budgets reflects that.
Although empirical evidence tells the opposite story – that during recessions overcommitting to marketing spend is the best a brand can do to sustain growth, particularly now when content consumption has dramatically increased – fear stopped several marketers from making the better move. And yet, in an attempt at fixing the short of it by turning ‘window shopping’ into ‘screen shopping’, marketers and their brands could risk further emphasising short-termism and the related crisis in creativity that plagues our industry and, arguably, threatens our civilisation.
Long-termism is not the antidote either. As UK economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, “In the long run we are all dead.” This worldview, combined with the ability to see the direct impact of short-term efforts, provides marketers with great reassurance. But that reassurance is a fake sentiment, narrowly manufactured and, reassurance comes at the expense of brand-building – the most valuable business tool ever invented.
Critically, though, perhaps this is an invitation for marketers to stop viewing themselves and their trade as economists do. As preached by ad legend Rory Sutherland, “My definition of marketing is simply the science of knowing what economists are wrong about. The human mind does not run on logic any more than a horse runs on petrol.” Perhaps, rather than chasing more universal laws of marketing, and what Sutherland calls ‘measurebation’, why not chase the exceptions that bring exponential success? And why not use that to help shift a business culture focused on short-term advantage, obsessed with money and uninterested on much else? Particularly when, as explained by Sutherland in an exclusive master class for The Marketing Academy,
““Marketing could be viewed as the most determining factor for social progress – not just in terms of changing our buying habits, but also in transforming our values system.”
Well… so what? A typical career lasts for 80,000 hours; so if you can make your career just one percent better, then in theory it would be worth spending up to 800 hours working out how to do just that. The past holds the patterns, the present is blurred, but the future is from where such exceptions can be seeded and harvested.
Dr Toby Ord, a Philosophy Fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, frames the point in a rather compelling way:
“Of all the people whose well-being we should care about, only a small fraction are alive today. The rest are members of future generations who are yet to exist. Whether they’ll be born into a world that is flourishing or disintegrating – and indeed, whether they will ever be born at all – is in large part up to us.”
This conclusion holds true regardless of whether your moral framework is based on common sense, consequences, rules of ethical conduct, cooperating with others, virtuousness, keeping options open or just a sense of wonder about the universe in which we find ourselves. Regardless of your personal stance, this is an opportunity for a sound investment of your time. Now and then.
Welcome to Futurecast.
Bothism: can it bridge more than just our technical divide?
During the 2020 Ogilvy Lecture, at The Marketing Society, Professor Mark Ritson brilliantly builds a bridge between all the many technical tensions that have been dividing the industry for the last decade, with his ‘Bothism’ philosophy. Meaning, it’s not either digital or traditional, it’s both. It’s not either differentiation or distinctiveness, it’s both. And so Bothism goes, as does the Professor reconciliating marketers’ technical differences.
Along with Professor Byron Sharp’s physical and mental availability tenets, Peter Field and Les Binet’s effectiveness work and Professor Scott Galloway’s clinical understanding of big tech in marketing and business, marketers now have a clear blueprint on how to make their brands succeed. So why aren’t most marketers implementing that? As identified by advertising planner Tom Roach, the everyday reality of work, informed by binary belief systems and organisational siloes, is what could be preventing marketers from going back and forth across the Bothism bridge – reminding us that ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. From a technical perspective, according to a recent Salesforce Marketing Intelligence Report Asia-Pacific, “Marketers are held back by lack of real-time insights and automation” not allowing these professionals to optimise their efforts.
In this sense, the emerging culture of effectiveness in marketing and communications will, in due time, help lift overall performance and give marketers more credibility in the boardroom with an increased ability to connect marketing investments to business outcomes. Still that does not close the playbook, begging the question:
“is effectiveness and its scientific approach good enough as a worldview for marketing?
A broader worldview for a legitimate science of marketing
Marketing effectiveness means growth and profitability – but could it mean, and maybe be, more? Effective marketing is a moneymaking machine – it has been proved to work. But could this growth engine also serve other purposes?
Back in 1976 scholars had already expressed that, “If marketing is to be restricted to only the profit/micro/normative dimension (as many practitioners would view it), then marketing is not a science and could not become one.” To overcome this perceived limitation of marketing being solely an applied technique to help pursue business growth, we must acknowledge other significant aspects that are equally, if not more, important as the dynamics of buyers and sellers in the market.
“The understanding of marketing as science is a critical endeavour, particularly for what it excludes.It first and foremost excludes marketing as being only a tool for managing and fostering economic growth or economic profits without caring about the environmental and social externalities and inequalities, often resulting from greed, markets and private equity, among other things. Marketing knowledge should not only support marketers and managers, it could also support customers and citizens in general.
“As a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied… producers may proceed actively to create wants through advertising and salesmanship.”
From engine to steering wheel: an evolved marketing worldview
A worldview is a collection of attitudes, values, stories and expectations about the world around us, which inform our every thought and action and can be expressed in ethics, religion, philosophy, scientific beliefs and, of course, brands. The data-led worldview that marketers are increasingly adopting is certainly a positive move from relying on instinct only. However, data overreliance could, at times, be confused with the ‘mechanistic’ worldview,often found in economics. Within this frame, behaviour and behaviour change are predictable and rationally driven. Mechanists believe that behaviour is caused by either context or DNA, which makes sense, but we know that both contexts and even genes (i.e. epigenetics) can change their make-up, debunking the approach. This may be true in physics or mathematics, but not in economics and less so in marketing communications, where value is extracted not from the data, but from the insights deriving from it. To be data-led may frame a marketing department as the back office cogs of the business. To be data-inspired may reframe the CMO as the captain steering the ship. Where would you rather be?
For example, people often find themselves in a situation of overconsumption, on an individual and a global level, feeling forced to throw away unused or underused items; we’re all aware of plastic waste and related environmental issues. Why do people eat more than they need and more than is healthy?
“Is there marketing knowledge for those who try to avoid what they do not need and what may be unhealthy?Humanity’s annual demand on the natural world has exceeded what the Earth can renew in a year since the 1970s. This ‘ecological overshoot’ has continued to grow over the years, reaching a 50 percent deficit in 2008. This means that it takes 1.5 years for the Earth to regenerate the renewable resources that people use in one year.
According to the University of New South Wales Emeritus Professor Roger Alexander Layton, a possible repositioning of marketing could be described as: “Marketing is the study of value co-creation through voluntary economic choice made in exchange among individuals and entities in and between human communities.” Further, Professor Philip Kotler, the ‘father of modern marketing’, has recently published the book Brand Activism: From Purpose to Action, where the key message is: “Carry your ‘CSR’ and ‘Sustainability’ claims out of the precious-accessories closet and boldly onto the centre stage of Accountability. Visible to the public, to politics and – even – to the sacred point of sale!” On top of that Kotler also joined the Saratoga Institute, a futures studies think tank, where he is voicing concerns directly related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production, which in the APAC region has not been properly accounted for and may have dramatically regressed as shown on the below figure:
Marketing is life and life is marketing
“Marketing is fundamental to what makes us human. Marketing is not solely about selling chewing gum, cars, cell phones and tourist packages. Everything in life involves the process of marketing something to someone. We market ourselves in the mating market. We market ourselves in the labour market. We market ourselves online via our personal webpages and social media portals. We market ourselves to new prospective friends. We market our ideas to book publishers, venture capitalists, co-workers and academic reviewers. As members of a social species endowed with large brains, we are natural-born marketers. Capitalism, the economic system that has elevated innumerable people out of abject poverty and misery, is founded on marketing. Everything that defines your daily existence has the indelible marks of marketing on it.” – Professor Gad Saad excerpt from Psychology Today.
A total shift may take more than a generation but, simply because we may not be alive, it does not mean it is not worth to at least anticipate it. The social responsibility of business is a 50-year-old conversation we haven’t quite managed to advance in a significant way. If Kotler is the ancestor who gifted us with the foundations of modern marketing, could we be the ancestors of a generation practising a more responsible and considered type of marketing?
This attempt at driving a more sustainable course of action is particularly important when considering the impact from the many job losses within an industry that already accounted for 56 percent of professionals displaying mild to severe levels on the depression scale, compared to a national average of 36 percent. Further, this is also a cry to overcoming the apathy regarding the role that marketing could play in contributing to the many challenges surfacing in human communities in both developing and developed countries, now accentuated by systemically reverse-distributing income to the top one percent. These challenges are shaped by widely different cultural, political, economic and technological factors, not just transactions in the market, as commented by Professor Sharp during a webinar concerning the present crisis:
“Yes, things like champagne sales suffer during recessions, and certainly in lockdowns there are fewer weddings. But the message to marketers is don’t slash the price of your product and don’t feel the need to completely throw out your previous advertising campaign. Keep calm and carry on.”
Behaviour change is a hard thing to accomplish – usually happening via small steps towards new habit-formation or a significant trauma. The current moment is certainly traumatic. So why not, at least, pay some more attention to that? From a futures studies perspective, adopting a three horizons approach, where ‘H1’ focuses on the immediate, urgent and important, ‘H2’ deals with preparing for the medium-term uncertainty and ‘H3’ is the space dedicated to developing a long-term vision – can certainly help marketers rise above the sea of fog.
“We know how marketing works, but do we know what we want it to work for? Profit is the default worldview. Prosperity is the renegade counterpart. Why not both?Why not embrace ambiguity, apply genuine foresight and rigorously imagine possible scenarios where marketing’s effectiveness can be considered in novel and holistic ways? Thankyou’s ‘No Small Plan’ call to arms is a brilliant example of such a reframe.
The post-COVID possible scenarios
By all accounts, the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak was not an unpredictable ‘Black Swan’, since many working in the emerging infectious diseases field provided several indications of its possibility. What is hard to predict, yet possible to project, is what may happen after this. The challenge of a global response is that there are multiple worldviews operating, all with different interests. Thus, predicting what the future may hold is pointless. But projecting alternative scenarios, preparing for potential risks and setting a course of action that helps actualise a desired future is a valuable lesson that Futures Studies can provide.
Are we getting too close to Excelsior Marketing?
When HG Wells wrote The Time Machine his real intention was to intervene, with the misuse of the theory of evolution by natural selection. His argument, learned from the seminal lecture ‘Evolution and Ethics‘ delivered by Thomas H Huxley, was that fitness to a given environment could not be taken for granted as the sole path to progress and would, in fact, have the opposite effect. He nicknamed social usages of Darwinism as ‘Excelsior Biology’. We have an interesting parallel, where empirical evidence is helping make marketing more effective. Yet, marketers are also humans and marketing is life – not just a scientific approach to the management of transactions in the market. Are we risking a scenario of Excelsior Marketing, where all that matters is the marketing of better marketing and for marketing’s sake? Brand purpose practices, no matter how well executed will most often (if not always) happen at the expense of profit. In moments of crisis, companies quickly shift their attention to survival. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. Under these circumstances, businesses are scrambling to cope with employee safety and enforced shutdowns, among many other challenges. However, recent studies about corporate social responsibility have demonstrated that when business leaders account for the varied interests of the diverse stakeholders that surround the organisation, the organisation becomes more resilient. Could this be an opportunity to broaden marketing’s holy grail from effectiveness and onto other positive outcomes, not only contributing to consumers’ paths to purchase, but also to citizens’ life journeys? This year, for the 2020 Effie Awards, the session titled ‘How do you drive profit from purpose?’ explored whether purpose is capable of driving growth and how. This must certainly be another early signal rising on some not too far horizon..
Equipped with the analysis of six meta-perspectives – the worldviews from those who sell in wet markets, those in the political bureaucracy, the current strategy of slowing down the virus, the pharma perspective, the market and, of course, the citizen – it is possible to identify at least four likely post-COVID scenarios. These have been developed by UNESCO Chair of Futures Studies Professor Sohail Inayatullah and Dr Peter Black, a foresight practitioner and veterinary epidemiologist with extensive experience in addressing emerging infectious disease threats. Scenario considerations are presented below:
Scenario 1: Zombie Apocalypse
1. Zombie Apocalypse – This future emerges because of the mutation of the virus plus xenophobia plus panic. Uncertainty leads to continued market crashes. Supply chains, tourism, travel and conferences are all disrupted. A severe and long-term recession, if not depression, results. Failure to act leads to several regime changes, as in Iran and the US, to begin with. Wherever there are system stresses, they break. This is certainly how the future feels to many. The memory of earlier plagues remains at the intergenerational level. Fear and panic rule.
In this worst case scenario, marketers need to balance their brands’ ‘why’ with customer expectations and commercial imperatives. This is certainly not an easy feat when the act of shopping acquires new meaning. Organisations, industries and audiences will vary widely as will the role customers may expect from brands. Data is further enhanced as a potent ally to adapting and improving every aspect of marketing – especially in customer interactions. On the other hand, generalised paranoia could make it harder for marketers to understand nuanced human behaviour and challenge our ability to reach audiences with messages, products or services that resonate and encourage the desired response. The aforementioned Salesforce report also concludes that sharing and collaborating on data analysis has been a roadblock to date and a more open business culture could be conducive to understanding what will really matter in this rather opaque scenario.
For marketers, it then becomes imperative to ask ourselves:
- How is my consumer affected and where are they most susceptible to negative change? What are they feeling? How may we recalibrate consumer segments?
- What role does my brand have in assisting them?
- What impact will this have on my brand?
- What are the commercial implications of all the above?
Broadly speaking, regardless of industry, we know the following truths:
We will need to overcome even stricter social distancing rules while staying close to our customers, understanding the changes in their behaviours, wants and needs. This is marketing 101. But you also want your relationship with customers to be authentic, so telling customers ‘we’re here for you’, when you haven’t reached out in any significant way for 12 months, isn’t going to work. Relationship marketing only matters if the customer wants a relationship. For some customers it’s just a transaction, so building a relationship using data needs to have a layer of emotional IQ built into every interaction allowing you to create the foundation for a relationship.
We will need to reconsider what our brands mean. For some, adapting its core truths may be enough. For others, a repositioning may be a mere Band-Aid and a rebrand considered the early sign of death. Regardless of how marketers feel and think we can help, we need to make sure that we are behaving as our brand has licence to with our customers. It is imperative that we are playing in the space that is expected and warranted. Data can help guide our understanding of customer expectations of our brand.
We need to be cognisant that this is an ever-changing environment, where those standing firm will become more distinctive and, by default, more trustworthy. From macro factors like the Australian economy entering a recession, to micro factors relating to local COVID hotspots, vigilance and agility are key. Just looking at the different experience of Victoria compared to the rest of Australia, we are seeing a vastly different economic outlook as a result. Similarly, there are now indications of a European COVID second wave as we approach a northern winter. What may be the knock-on effects in Australia? Regardless, single-mindedness manifested in actions, not just ads, may be the most effective way to maintain top-of-mind awareness and preference in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
Scenario 2: The Needed Pause
2. The Needed Pause – Efforts are made in most countries to ‘flatten the curve’ to help health systems cope. In the future, COVID-19 becomes just another winter flu – dangerous as it is for the elderly and those who smoke. It is, however, solved and made routine within a year. Big Pharma sees the moneymaking opportunity and by 2021 a vaccine is available. In the meantime, the frenetic pace of everything slows down, with multiple benefits for the planet and personal health. Greenhouse gas emissions fall, for starters. Cities suffering from over-tourism such as Venice get a break. Localisation heals. People focus on their inner lives. More and more people meditate. For a short period working from home becomes the norm. However, states still do not support employees in this process, as trust is a factor. Thus, after the pause, it’s back to business as usual. We slowed down to speed up again.
We need to stop talking in terms of the ‘new normal’. What we are currently facing is a set of circumstances that have changed our environment. To what extent and for how long is unknown. This will again depend on your industry, your target audience and your ability to pave the road forward as opposed to waiting a return. How? Marketing’s ‘4Ps’ can be a good indicator. From planned obsolescence to products that last longer or, even better, regenerate. From a burnout workforce to one that better integrates life and work. From the cumbersome commute and costly square metres to ubiquitous mobility and commerce convenience. From low prices funded by cheap labour to competitive prices enabled by smarter supply chains and business models.
What we have seen more than anything else is incredible adaptability, agility and versatility, none more so than within our small business community. If you weren’t digital before, you certainly are now. Again, every marketer needs to arm themselves with skills and pivoting abilities, rather than grand strategies and we could all learn something from SMBs. In this (as in any time of change) we need to focus on what we need to learn, not on what we already know. How do we use data to learn more, improve outcomes and make sure we are resonating with our consumers?
Arguably, relationships are more important than ever before. The crux of a relationship is trust and when the outside world is scary and unknown, trust is even more valued – even in a transactional society. The key for each of us is to ask what relationship our customers may expect of us, this will allow marketers to understand if their brands can live up to new expectations and whether they truly have a role to play or are systemically flushed out from the markets of which they were once a part.
This time has also given us the opportunity to press the reset button. Change is not new to marketing. COVID-induced change across industries and economies has forced simultaneous change for all marketers and tested their adaptability. It’s on a bigger scale but not totally new. We have been forced to forensically look at ourselves, our budgets, the environment in which we are operating and, ultimately, our consumer. This has forced optimisation through digital, collaboration, through necessity and working in a much more agile manner. We may now expect some positive outcomes, like grit to NOT return to a normal that only partially served us.
Scenario 3: Global Health Awakening
3. Global Health Awakening – Large AI companies, science sector, start-ups, and public health expertise come to the rescue. We truly enter the digital fourth wave era – genomics plus AI help monitor and then prevent. The five ‘p’ health model – prevention, precision, participation, partnership and personalisation become the norm. There is a breakthrough after breakthrough with innovation (real-time detection, health monitoring using big data) cascading through the system. While the virus began in China, the nation leads in innovation as it is forced to adapt. Arnold J Toynbee’s creative minority via open-source science and technology lead the way. Working from home booms as new relationships between employer and employee are created. Universal basic income is supported as the strength of a society is based on how we treat the weakest, not how we glorify the strongest. Young people are no longer the future, but the present. This is the disruption that truly creates the fourth industrial revolution. Along with external innovation, there is inner innovation – a social revolution. Evidence-based science and technology inform public policy, not the whims of particular leaders. The insights from fighting COVID-19 are applied to climate change. There is a dramatic shift to plant-based diets. It is business transformed, social mutation, not back to usual. There are, however, concerns about privacy.
COVID has accelerated tech adoption. Any brand that is still wrestling with ‘digital transformation’ will likely be struggling to keep up. It is wrong to think digital doesn’t incorporate creativity, just as it is wrong to think creativity has nothing to do with data. It’s both and, the sweet fruit of this marriage could mean the rise of sentient marketing. In this new reality, brands proactively take action to avoid errors, sensing adversity and remaining alert to micro-trends and opportunities in its environment. The sentient enterprise is frictionless and truly unified by its brand’s strategy – for real, not just as a model on the paper. Like many actions that the brain executes, the sentient enterprise listens to data and makes autonomous, real-time decisions without requiring a human’s conscious intervention.
Predictive marketing should absolutely be embraced but, as with all technology, success will be driven by more than just profit. Empathy, connection and responsibility, combined with value delivery, may become the new metrics assessed by brand trackers. Without delivering this, brands will quickly lose meaning and the ability to command price premiums and, ultimately, will commoditise.
By default, organisations will have a clear brand and be purpose and values driven. They need to demonstrate this through all their actions – advertising, customer experience, and customer relationship building and maintenance. Customers still will identify with, and hold a perception of, a brand, but the evaluation criteria will have changed and factors will be weighed differently. Connection, belonging and your brand’s ‘why’ will matter even more. But for a more purposeful future by default, we must look at how to redesign the present enterprise. Starting now, not then.
Consumers will still seek guidance. They will look to those they trust to provide that, be it a financial institution, an FMCG or a service. For now, consumers are searching for brands that help them make good choices that support the well-being for all – planet, people and the economy. Brands able to demonstrably track progress across the triple bottom line will move away from niche indexes reporting on ‘green brands’ and become the new gold standard for the more mainstream ‘best brands’ reports.
Scenario 4: The Great Despair
4. The Great Despair – Not an apocalypse, not a depression, no magic; just a slow and marked decline of health and wealth. Walls appear everywhere. The World Health Organisation and others try to contain, but the virus repeatedly slips in and infects the bodies, minds and hearts of all. Back to the European Middle Ages. The efforts to address fail. The least connected to globalisation fare the best. The vulnerable are forgotten. Intergenerational memory of past pandemics informs reality.
As marketers, do we have enough influence to impact this scenario? This often depends so deeply on political and economic inputs that are beyond our control. However, as an industry we are overwhelmingly one of optimism, action and awareness. Futurecast is a manifestation of marketers’ ability to foresee this and disrupt inertia or apathy. There are many steps between here and there. Marketing doesn’t only have to be to ‘sell’ products and services. It can equally persuade and inform decisions about health choices, protecting the vulnerable, combating mental health deterioration and lessening the height of any ‘walls’. As a part of society, marketers would be part of the effort to resist the described decline. A few of us have already started.
“This crisis is a health crisis but, of course, it is much more. It is about leadership and governance – about what type of world we wish to live in.“We live in an age of pathological short-termism,” said philosopher Roman Krznaric, who is writing a book about long-term thinking.
“Politicians cannot see beyond the next week, and nations bicker around conference tables, focusing on near-term interest while the planet burns. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people where we dump our ecological degradation, risk, nuclear waste and public debt.”
As Winston Church once said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The Business Avengers Initiative is a coalition of 17 major multinationals that have committed to implementing the Sustainability Development Goals in their organisations. Championing that is marketer Gail Gallie, who sees the world as one system, with marketing permeating its many layers. In her words, “A system that takes everything into account and tries to move forward holistically is what we need to get us out of here [and] it turns out we can… People may have been daunted by these objectives in the past and may have been quietly or publicly thinking, ‘Oh, that’s never going to happen’. But when you see the incredible fast and deep interventions that have taken place during the pandemic, it turns out we can do incredibly ambitious things.”
It took a 16-year-old girl to disrupt the over-intellectualised climate debate and stir action. An analogue poster was her only tool. The marketer’s solution stash is a lot more comprehensive. Driving growth is just part of the equation, contributing to people, planet and prosperity are the missing elements that can turn results more positive to the triple bottom-line.
Plus, we know the customer and it can be said that the root cause of past financial crises and the current one is, to a great degree, due to a lack in customer focus. A little over 10 years ago, customer-blindness allowed overborrowing, sub-prime lending, excessive leverage, securitisation and other symptoms of this larger malady. This time round, the causes beneath the COVID crisis are even more complex and wide-ranging, fundamentally ignited and sustained by misleading communications (for example, promotion), confusing costs (price) about its consequences, rapid spread enabled by a globalised society (place) and lack of appropriate treatment (product).
A systemic view of what marketing effectiveness is, and can be, needs to be supported by data, insights, technology, media ecosystems and the power of brand. Proficiency is part of the solution and posturing part of the problem.
“Back in 1957, Wroe Alderson, considered the most important marketing theorist of the 20th century, said, “What is needed is not an interpretation of the utility created by marketing, but a marketing interpretation of the whole process of creating utility.”For the 21st century, Futurecast is an attempt at doing just that. If we succeed, we can expect to ignite a journey to a desired future.
If we fail…
|Sérgio Brodsky is the executive producer of Futurecast and a leading brand and foresight strategist.|
|Professor Sohail Inayatullah is the UNESCO Chair of Futures Studies and all-time best futurist laureate.|
|Andrea Martens is the CEO at ADMA.|
Original illustrations and artwork by Shirley Bloom.