We're on the road to recovery. We're re-opening, re-setting, re-inventing, navigating the new, emerging at the other side, un-pausing the pause button, writing the post-COVID playbook, re-discovering and probably re-pivoting too.
The challenging times are far from over, though. At least, that's what the flurry of articles and webinars and thought pieces and workshops on what brands should be doing now, in this "recovery phase," would have you believe.
I do hope that we as marketers won't make the same mistake twice. Only a few of weeks ago, marketing managers all over the world noticed that their carefully thought-out and quickly pulled-together "we're here for you, we'll get through this together" commercial was exactly the same as the next one. Especially when the internet wags pointed it out to them.
The mistake was that people were so desperate to demonstrate empathy with what people were going through in lockdown that they forgot (or were too nervous of being insensitive) to show how their brand, services and products could play a role.
I hope that brand communication coming out now will see a return to lighthouse brands - or maybe in the mobile day-and-age, Searchlight Brands. Instead of vague expressions of empathy, a bolder statement of how your brand inspires how people might like to live tomorrow.
Of course advertising should be based on empathy, but an empathy that comes from the brand:
What does your brand do for people, and why?
What's unique about your product/s and service/s?
What is your brand's particular voice, attitude and way of seeing the world?
And the litmus test is always: could this piece of communication come from any other brand?
Lockdown cliche that I am, I'm been listening in to a few seminars recently. To do with work and to do with my rather bedraggled attempt at being an author. This week's seminar from The Society of Authors promised to combine both - the topic was Marketing your Books.
I did pick up a few tips and once I'd got my head round the idea that the speaker was talking more about what I'd call sales, I was happy to listen in to learn what I should really be doing to sell my books - getting an email newsletter together.
I won't be doing that, though, for a simple reason. Sales is not the prime objective of my marketing. And it's for this reason that I found the tenor of the talk slightly depressing:
There are no new ideas in marketing
All marketing is a numbers game Just copy from those who are doing it well/properly
This flavour of marketing is something I've touched on before, in relation to creativity. Here, and here. The idea that with a mix of templates, frameworks, tools and algorithms, you can create by formula. And I've discovered a myriad of websites that can churn out content to promote your book, from Canva to BookBrush. And yes, I probably will give them a go, and stick it on Instagram to see what happens. Although I'm not sales-driven, I'm never going to say no if someone wants to buy my books. Of course not.
I am sure I could find a antique-looking map background and possibly some representation of a scorpion and create a nice little promo for my book. But I fear it would get lost amongst all the samey coffee cups, socks, flowers in vases and shabby-chic backgrounds that one sees in book promotion.
The map would not be the genuine article of the place that inspired the book, from the early 1960s, still encrusted with a hint of desert sand.
And the scorpion wouldn't be a fluffy one.
The thing is, there's more to marketing than numbers.
There is magic, mystery, creativity, novelty, authenticity, surprise.
And none of these things are available via a template.
Looking back over the last six or seven weeks, the main thing that's struck me is the rediscovery of the comforts of your own home. I'm talking about a particular group of people here, who may well have pooh-poohed their home in healthier days, or even denied that their home consisted of something as solid as four walls. The younger amongst this group like to think of themselves as Global Nomads, the older as International Business People or Liberal Elite Citizens of the World. Many of the Marketing and Advertising community belong (although belonging isn't really their thing) to this group of "Anywheres". It's a group who can, on occasion, have a slightly sneery and condescending view of those who are - let's say - more rooted.
A fascinating report came out last week from discover.ai, who have been chronicling the passage of lockdown and beyond more-or-less in real time. Last week's issue looked at enjoyment - how people are talking about pleasure, treats, joy and fun. And so much of what they found related back to home comforts, from TV binges to Burgeoning Booziness.
What discover.ai have termed Age of Nostalgia is only too apparent in a Facebook news stream cluttered with photos of dog-eared albums as yet another friend takes up the challenge (I would personally find running up Ben Nevis a challenge, or jumping into the North Sea on New Years Day, but there you go).
I listened to a webinar where Steve Challouma, the General Manager of Birds Eye talked about growth of 60% for Fish Fingers, and 120% for Chicken Nuggets - comfort food has leapt out from under the duvet to reclaim its place in our stomachs, and therefore hearts.
The booze story with all those Quadrantinis and Furlough Merlots is well-documented.
And, in a Society of Authors (virtual) Tea With ... event, author Joanne Harris admitted to reading Georgette Heyer in the bath.
In the UK at least, all of this cosy, nostalgic, naughty-but-nice, keep the home fires burning stuff will cumulate tomorrow in an outbreak of Stay at Home VE Day Street Parties.
And there will be no excuse from the (former) Global Nomads and Elite World Citizens not to join in with the jollity.
One of the better articles I've read about Post-COVID-19 culture is this one from Sturm und Drang. What I like here is it's not someone pontificating about the New Normal (groan) and "what we're all going to be doing/thinking" but instead outlines some of the key tensions that will be in play:
Online and Real World
Health & Safety and Getting out and living for the moment
Personal Freedom and Group monitoring
Self-reliance and solidarity
Humanity and nature
One thing that is certain is that the COVID-19 crisis will accelerate transformation and movements that are happening anyway. Take the first of Sturm & Drang's tensions - the shift online. Music and film and gaming were being created and played from bedrooms, our lives were becoming increasingly streamed and the couch potatoes and nerds were inheriting the earth.
People are learning to live without coffee to-go, or anything to-go for that matter. There's a certain power in having the world of work, leisure and everything in between at your fingertips, from the comfort of your four walls.
Maybe there will be a massive, irreversible shift online in all spheres of life.
Or maybe not. In the two world wars of the last century, entire young generations had their freedom curtailed by having to do their duty and go out and fight, or otherwise work night and day for the war effort. For the current young generation, COVID-19 is their war.
People of my generation used to bewail the fact that being confined to their bedroom was no longer a punishment for a teenager.
But maybe it's beginning to be. Days and weeks of unrestricted online access. Not just that, but parents, grandparents, teachers all invading the online world of the young: from making idiots of themselves on TikTok to hi-jacking YouTube for serious learning. One can sense an urge to rebel, to get out. Not going underground, but overground into the wild world of the Internot.
Perhaps this is another trend that will be accelerated by the crisis.
Who knows, maybe the young will spend their summer like Richard Jefferies' Bevis:
"It was living, not thinking. He lived it, never thinking, as the finches live their sunny life in the happy days of June. There was magic in everything, blades of grass and stars, the sun and the stones upon the ground."
The current COVID-19 crisis has brought them all skipping out across the daisy-strewn meadow - the oh-so-virtuous po-faced brands with their interchangeable #inspiringhashtag films, beautifully parodied here.
The films aren't the end of it, either. All the goodie-goodie brands in class have their hands permanently raised to get the teacher's attention. Look what I've done, Miss, look-at-me, look-at-me, aren't I a good little boy/girl/whatever? Actions speak louder than words, but most of these actions aren't for their own sake, but to shout about on social media, or to get on "great things brands are doing" lists.
It's said that the current crisis will accelerate a few things that are happening anyway, like digital transformation. I suspect another is brands raiding the virtuous dressing-up box for values which they'll try (in a not particularly virtuous way) to "own". Interestingly, some of the classic virtues seem more in demand - humanity, kindness, empathy, compassion and charity being top of the pile - while others are relegated to the bottom of the said box - can't see many brands positioning themselves on diligence, patience or humility these days.
There's an interesting extract from an article here entitled From Gorilla to Generosity about the Cadbury brand. Back in 2007, everyone was raving about the Gorilla commercial, but it now seems that history is being rewritten - the ad "failed to reflect the brand", despite being hugely memorable and successful in its own way.
It seems to me that the Cadbury story was a classic case of planning post-rationalising an inspired piece of creative that in all probability just happened, with no rhyme or reason. Someone, somewhere worked out that maybe Gorilla was about "joy" so that became the positioning officially in 2012.
But by this time Cadbury had been taken over by Kraft/Mondelez, adding all the complications that a global owner brings. What's happened to our chocolate, came the cry as factories were closed. This may or may not have prompted the move from the generic, somewhat self-orientated and distinctly unownable "joy" to a "reconnection with the roots" and the current positioning, based on kindness and generosity flowing from the product truth of "a glass and a half."
There's been some nice work done for the brand, but part of me questions the credibility. Can you go back to your roots and be accepted there if you've turned your back on your origins for the global high-life?
And is something like "generosity" a bit too goodie-goodie for chocolate? I miss the silliness and humour of chocolate advertising that played, not with the virtues, but with the sins - envy, greed, gluttony - in a light-hearted and very human way.
The streets outside may well be empty, but the dear old information superhighway is getting mighty congested.
Dormant WhatsApp groups are springing into life with the vigour of April tulips.
Long-lost relatives are emailing and Skyping and FaceTiming and StrangeTiming and StaySafeing.
The middle-aged have taken a crash-course in the media of the young, from Zoom to TikTok to Houseparty.
Streaming services have turned into less of a stream and more of a torrential, gushing river in danger of breaking its banks.
Museums, galleries, cinemas and educational establishments have flung open their virtual doors. I have even joined a virtual pub.
Along with all the memes on overdrive and "useful stuff to do if you're bored" (bored????) there's a unstoppable current of mis-information about COVID-19 and previous pandemics, from conspiracy theories to misleading medical advice to manipulated statistics to fake stories.
And meanwhile, many of the "Somewheres" are out of the front line, or wondering whether there will be a Somewhere - a small business, a livelihood, a home - when all this is over.
Talking of "when all this is over", there is also a deluge of seminars, studies and articles speculating on what, exactly, will be the "new normal". No-one knows, of course.
I'm not convinced that the world will become obsessed with hygiene. Maybe in combination with more interest in immunity and how to be better prepared next time.
I'm also not sure about the "online as default" prediction that's flying around. There isn't really a substitute for reality and face-to-face meeting. People are social animals and social media will only take you so far. There's already a yearning to get back together, with "meeting friends" as the Number 1 thing people will do after the crisis.
And will we be better people? Again, for every high-minded soul that's meditating in the morning, dashing off a novel or symphony in the afternoon and delivering essential groceries in the evening, there are plenty sitting around, guzzling down comfort food and too much booze, while bombarding the world with "hilarious" memes. Not to mention the spinners of conspiracy theories and bogus medical advice, the con-artists and the opportunists (thanks, whoever you were with your kind offer of a "free financial consultation" so that I don't lose all of my pension).
About a week ago (I have lost track of time in this weird pandemic pandemonium), in the light of supermarket shortages, the photo above went viral on social media. Comments focus on how "heartbreaking" it was, with plenty of weeping emojis and self-righteous indignation about the lack of brain cells of the loo-roll hoarders and their like.
I can imagine that most of these comments saw a tragic scene of a "poor elderly (anonymous) gentleman", sadly bowing his head in silent submission of his fate. The reality, I read later, was a little different. Anthony Glynn, a retired merchant seaman aged 79, had gone out shopping on behalf of his elderly neighbours and had forgotten his reading glasses so was squinting at his shopping list.
This reminds me of my parents, who, in their retirement helped out with "the old people" - in fact, in her 90s, my mum was still doing voluntary work for Age Concern, visiting older people who were housebound. Some of these were a good few years younger than her, of course.
In real life and in marketing (which shouldn't actually be different, but they are), there is an increasing tendency to cast everyone as a victim, to describe huge swathes of the population as generally "vulnerable" - without really saying to what in particular. And yes, human beings are vulnerable - to the COVID-19 virus for example.
But you can be resilient, courageous, even, as well as vulnerable. Society is not simply divided into "heroes and the vulnerable" or (in pre-corona days) into "the toxic and the victims". I found this article by sociologist Frank Furedi particularly illuminating on the current crisis. He calls for a cultivation of courage, and its attendant qualities of altruism, responsibility and wisdom.
Courage is not the same as fearlessness. You can't have courage without fear.
When I was little, I wanted to be a spy. I got off to a good start, studying Psychology at Trinity College, Cambridge but somehow got side-tracked into the wonderful world of advertising and marketing.
My children's books: