The unbearable lightness of being inessential

Christina Aventi considers the concept of essentialism during COVID-19 and what that term actually means for brands who sit on either side of the classification. 

In the spirit of essentialism, I’ll get straight to the point.

A new class of ‘essential brands’ has emerged. And whether you’re deemed essential or inessential, it’s worth having a little think about carving out your piece of essentialism pie before it gets eaten up.

To be or not to be… essential.

At the start of COVID-19, ‘essential’ was the qualifier for what we did, what we bought, where we could work. A hierarchy of essential emerged and we found ourselves asking – what’s essential? It prompted an evaluation of the very definition of the word. There was the state-defined essential and then there was essential with a wink, in the eye of the beholder. And so, a seemingly absolute concept started having a bit of elasticity to it.

It originates from the Latin word, ‘essence’, which is rooted in ‘esse’, which means ‘to be’. And therein lies the existential crisis that comes from a world revolving around essential, posing many questions about self-worth, be them occupational or social: Am I an essential worker? Do I matter? Who are the 10 people I’ll visit now that I can? Who will pick me? Am I part of that essential, magic 10…to someone?

It makes the end-of-the-world desert island conundrum feel palpably real.

Has COVID-19 accelerated essentialism?

Greg McKeown defines essentialism as “the consistent and focused pursuit of less but better”. He states that, “it requires stopping regularly to ask yourself whether you’re spending your time and resources on the right things”. It is about energy, effort, values, priorities.

Even prior to COVID-19 there was a shift to de-materialism, a shift from unboxing to purging parties and decluttering movements, and being more mindful in all that we consume. Underpinned by a rejection of being beholden to hamster wheel lives needed to support mortgages and lifestyles we had become accustomed to. We started asking ourselves – “are we time poor or priority poor?” We sought out better quality yes’s and needed to re-learn how to say no.

Post COVID-19 this is likely to take hold even more. We have for so long outsourced decisions to habit, routine and defaults because of busy-ism. And now we will be more conscious of that. 

This is both in a functional sense, because we are less ‘liquid’, and philosophically, because we’ve been forced to re-evaluate what we really need to survive.

Are you an ‘Essential’ – the big brand question during COVID-19

Welcome to the Exclusive Club of Essential Brands

At the beginning of lockdown, brands and sectors deemed ‘essential’ were given rights that few had. As if coming from some deity above, banks, grocery stores, healthcare (of course) and hairdressing (ahem) were anointed with ‘essential’ status. And yes, finances, food and health are essential, along with quality WiFi and a premium Zoom package.

This guerrilla version of Maslow’s hierarchy captures it all. And, as much as WiFi or Zoom or data can seem flippant, it’s never been more true. Or essential.

 

Source: Viswanathan K., 2016

For the banks, being essential in a post-Royal Commission era bakes in trust that would take years to earn (and probably seconds to crumble).

For the grocery sector, it created a sense of responsibility to serve the broader ecosystem and made ‘safe shopping’ a new part of the value equation.

For streaming services, boredom breakers and cabin fever diffusers, there was more permission than ever to dive into our screens for escape. Respite. Relief. And for common ground.

Essential was/is relative. As well as absolute.

Are you an essential brand or just lucky enough to operate in an essential category? 

Most of us buy essentials on autopilot. It’s the same grocery list every week, the same shampoo for years and the same bank since teenagerhood. The COVID-19 induced panic buying created an out-of-stock situation that Australia has never seen before. And with it, a real-life brand experiment to see what happens if the routine and shopping repertoire is disrupted.

What do you do if your favourite tomato passata is out of stock? You get to choose whether you accept a substitution or not. And you ask yourself: “How important is it whether I have tomato passata a or b? Should I just be grateful to be able to buy tomato passata?” And of course, “Should tomato passata be in the canned fruit or vege aisle?”

Two out of 10 shoppers have bought a different brand if their usual brand was out of stock, according to the IRI COVID-19 Tracker. Out of stock indeed makes us question our brand loyalty. Crisis desensitises us to brand differences and leads to brands in essential categories being at risk of commoditisation. There’s probably a clue why a particular home-brand calls its range ‘Essentials’.

While out of stock is still the biggest issue that shoppers currently face (FiftyFive 5 COVID-19 Tracker), it won’t last forever. Supply chains will recover. And the intangible, the brand itself, will become more important to lure back customers. Or to keep those that switched during the crisis.

Worry not, “Inessentials”, there’s a hack!

Brand ‘COVID’ has its own conventions and essential brands that are following its cues religiously. Regardless of who they are and what they stand for, every essential brand is earnest, far more sensible, informative with a touch of caregiver (cue help, support, “we’re in this together”, Zoom face gallery view).

Brands from every category – from home décor through travel to social networks – have successfully hacked into the ‘Exclusive Club of Essential Brands’. Now it’s your turn to tap into the cues and codes and behave as if you were essential. Fast Company has have even developed a ready-to-go “brand guidelines” for you. 

And well… you could also make ‘Inessential’ a strength.

Given the codes and conventions of brand ‘essential’, there’s still an opportunity to be the challenger to the virtue signalling that abounds. Be the antidote to earnest. The counter to the collectivist culture. Reflect the flawed human truth of it all. After all, living ‘essential-ly’ can feel like you are part of some Amish community, living on grains, rations and resorting to leaves for loo paper. Basically, there is still an underlying whiff of restraint and compromise in ‘essential’.

So, there’s an opportunity to challenge essential. Push up against it. Take pride in your dispensability. Redefine essential in the eye of the beholder. Encode that with choice. Individualism. Indulgence and whims. With freedom. And pure, unshackled Bacchanalian joy. Play to the reactance bias because there will be a cohort that needs to escape, even rebel against ‘essential’.

How could you or your brand thrive in post COVID-19 essentialism? 

  1. Strategy is everything you choose not to do

“The oldest, shortest words – ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – are those which require the most thought.” – Pythagoras.

In recent years we’ve all been too eager to say yes. Companies dived into brand extension, created way too many new brands, new products, distribution and media channels and agreed to yet another CX or data project. While as individuals, we agreed to do more work, more playdates, more extracurriculars.

Essentialism, just like strategy, requires the ability to say no. But saying ‘no’ is deemed adversarial, about loss aversion, can seem unhelpful. The art of ‘no’ is actually about gain not loss. Finding the signal amongst the noise so to speak. The belief that more and more means mediocre. It’s about doing fewer things more intentionally as opposed to doing more things.

And so, we need to re-brand ‘no’, from NO in caps, to the self-assured little no. Show it as a gateway to freedom. And hero the reserves of energy that would otherwise be sapped by the over-use of the word yes. The pause created by this crisis allows us to remove the guilt that lurks beneath the surface of ‘no’. If we let it. ‘No’ might mean less. But less can be more. With more focus and better use of resources. It’s a sobering reminder of the rudiments of strategy.

  1. Win the switchorama

As we are spring cleaning our choices, Marie Kondo-ing our priorities, in some categories, customers might defer to the leader, to the most trusted, like banks or insurance. But equally, even within, there will be many who will engage in a re-evaluation. With over 60 percent of Aussies worried about their job and many already on Jobkeeper, budgets are getting tighter and customers are changing category and brand preferences. Eight out of 10 people in APAC have tried at least one service for the first time during COVID-19, so switching is already well underway. It’s down to you if your brand is in or out.

  1. Be part of the upgrade 

It’s not just about shrinking discretionary spend though. The crisis has shown the positive environmental impact of when we do less and buy less. As the planet heals itself, more of us start asking: “Do I really need this? And, if so, how many and what quality, to make sure it will last?”

18 percent of us say we want to be less materialistic after the outbreak. But that’s easier said than done.

According to the Harvard Business Review, crises put essentials to the forefront, while postponables and expandables take a backseat. Treats sit in the “field beyond all notions of right or wrong”.

So, we’ll still do and buy. But it is likely to be less. Less but better.

Think of it as an upgrade. Like those who’ve just got an iPhone (SE) for a Xiaomi price.

An unbearably inessential parting thought.

So here we are. Essentialism is having a moment. As much as on the surface of it, being inessential might seem like you are on the outer, there’s lots of room to carve out your take on humble essential pie. Or what the hey, throw humility out the window and embrace your inessentiality.

After all, we will hit peak ‘essential’. I’m even getting a little over the concept writing this article.

Christina Aventi is the executive planning director of BMF.

Photo by Ewien van Bergeijk – Kwant on Unsplash.