This article first appeared on Patrick Hyland‘s personal LinkedIn profile, here.
Patrick is our Head of Copy. He is also a keen amateur chef and oenophile, who is a volunteer teacher at the Talk English Support Program for refugees and displaced persons. Follow him on Twitter.
Raise a glass of whatever hooch you’re currently brewing in the garage. Smoke one of your last wallet-scorching Mozambican mystery cigarettes if that’s your thing. Celebrate! The long lockdown misery looks like it’s finally easing – time to get things moving, pick up the pieces and get people excited about spending money on ‘stuff’ again.
Except, today’s pessimistic projections don’t seem to point to a return to anything remotely worth celebrating – 40 000 deaths, 1 million potential cases, a spike that may only be reached in November, overwhelmed private and public healthcare facilities. Add to all this the daily litany of failed businesses, the misery and desperation of unemployment, crippling debt and coming hunger and the perky, ‘çhin-up’ rallying cries to get ready for the new normal are beginning to sound obscenely tone-deaf to me.
It’s a narrative I would probably have been totally on-board just a few weeks ago, but then I read Julio Vincent Gambuto’s brilliant duo of essays in The Forge (if you haven’t read them yet, they’re online here and here). They’ve been niggling at me ever since, making me ask questions about the role I can play as a citizen and a brand communicator in the weeks and months ahead – either as a collaborator in what he refers to as the Ultimate Gaslighting or as a communicator, helping people navigate and realise the potential he sees in The Great Pause (again his words).
And they’re deeply uncomfortable questions to answer. I’m lucky enough to have a job I love (or actually still have a job for that matter), so I’m certainly not about to do a goldfish-clutching Jerry McGuire-style industry exit. It’s hard for all of us right now, but despite the effects of this crisis on us personally and in our creative lives, I just feel we could and should be doing better for the brands we work with and the people who trust them. Let me try and explain what I mean.
“I know what normal is. This isn’t it.”
Any concept of normal is built around ease, familiarity, routine and comfort – knowing exactly what’s happening and what to do next. There’s no stress or uncertainty to normal. Normal isn’t closed schools, brutalised household incomes, extinguished dreams. Normal isn’t 6km queues for food parcels (and if we think that’s an acceptable normal, there’s something seriously wrong with us).
The world we’re about to emerge into with the easing of lockdown isn’t going to bring anything approximating normal either – finding new employment in a shattered economy, juggling UIF shortfalls and personal debt, kids playing without contact, empty stadia, streaming concerts, temperature scans and social distancing everywhere. It won’t be normal, it will be a cold, hard, sanitiser-scented reality that is going to be difficult for many ordinary South Africans to come to terms with and survive, let alone embrace.
So, there’s a profound disconnect in talking about accepting ‘a new normal’ right now. It’s not going to get more comfortable, no-one’s going to look back on this and laugh one day, Winter is here.
Maybe we’re all just paralysed by a crisis that has disrupted every aspect of our society, to the extent that we simply don’t have anything meaningful to say, nothing to offer that can possibly make a difference? But, we should be trying harder – ‘new normal’ is a nice passive concept for businesses and brands to embrace as our campaigns, promotions and product launches come back to life (hopefully), but it’s not the reality South Africa lives in right now. Are we and the brands we work with making that reality any better? Can we? Will we? How did we? Those may be stories worth telling.
So, what did you DO in the war?
We love expropriating the language of conflict in times of adversity. “Join the fight against the scourge of…”, “Help combat…”, Together we can defeat…”, “Celebrating our heroes in the struggle against…”
The fact is, weaponised messaging is easy, a simple way of demonstrating support, without actually doing anything. It’s waving banners with the same catchphrases, shouting the same slogans in a crowd. At best it’s wallpaper, at worst it’s a cynical appropriation of the efforts and sacrifices of those who actually are making a difference.
“If herd anonymity is a creative objective, there’s a lot of brands that are killing it right now.”
Your generic message, branded guide to handwashing or (another) infographic on coughing/sneezing/ social distancing exists in a sea of identical content. It’s a box-ticking exercise that hasn’t changed anything, brought relief or earned your product it’s place in the trolley of a mother counting every cent twice…if ‘herd anonymity’ is a creative objective, there’s a lot of brands that are killing it right now!
The incredible Tom Fishburne illustrates what I’m trying to say here best…
Why is it that in the midst of one of the great human upheavals of our times, we (with our maverick minds, our self-proclaimed status as ‘disruptors’ our deep understanding of human interaction, human nature and spirit) are allowing ourselves to produce such generic, soulless Hallmark-card brand pap? People are suffering to a backdrop (with a few very notable exceptions) of sanitised messaging with all the genuine soul of a Thoughts and Prayers tweet. Our response to this human tragedy seems to be to communicate with all the genuine empathy and heart of a few multi-millionaire schlebs gathered for a rousing chorus of ‘Imagine’ from their lockdown mansions.
Is it reasonable or rational to expect a brand, any brand to be able to do anything or say anything meaningful about this? Where do we even begin?
For me, this a time to build activist brands. Brands who stand for empathy and understanding above all else. Brands who demonstrably share their market’s fears and concerns and aren’t afraid to speak up about them. Fearless brands that stand with ‘their people’, no matter what. Brands with a cause, and a purpose, that add meaningful value beyond a transaction.
No, I don’t mean you, leveraging your tenuous hygiene claims while punting your household cleaning products to fearful moms. I don’t mean you either, trumpeting free doctor’s consultations while Twitter fills with people sharing your bland, stock-form denial of their desperate appeals for medical aid premium relief.
I mean activist brands, that ask difficult questions on behalf of the people who can’t.
How about surf or activewear brands asking questions about the logic and sense behind stringent exercise restrictions. Staple food brands asking why making hot meals for the starving requires a daily permit. Beer makers and distillers questioning why online ordering/store deliveries for home consumption is truly an impossible option within the lockdown framework?
I’m not saying that these are winnable battles (or battles that should be won) I’m simply asking how we allowed a simple, microscopic organism to out-disrupt us as communicators. Our connections with the people who buy and use our brands are our most precious asset. We’ve fought for them, we’ve earned them – and I feel, for the most part, we’ve forfeited them meekly, for a few rousing rallying cries, the odd campaign hashtag and then silence, while we wait for better days. The people who believe in us, in our brands deserve better.
What did you do in the war? I feel that for the most part, we surrendered, meekly and apologetically.
Maybe this Great Pause is our opportunity to fundamentally revisit our connections with real people. To strengthen our relationships with those we trust to choose the ‘stuff’ we sell. One of my agency’s guiding principles is ‘Brands that Do Good, Do Better’. It’s never like a more powerful mantra than now, because in the midst of the misery that is still to come, is the real opportunity for us to do good, and BE better.
“I simply question whether the kind of Groupthink crisis lockstep we’ve been in as brand communicators has served our consumers’ best interests.”
SIDENOTE: Of course, this isn’t even a war really either, at least not a winnable one. There won’t be a final victory. Perhaps a year to 18 months of fluctuating infections, sporadic outbreaks, varying lockdown levels. Then a vaccine is found and rolled out painstakingly (or not). And then there’s CoVID – 22 or 25 or 27 or whatever year the next fruitbat, pangolin or vaguely digestible vertebrate happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m certainly not saying that any brand has a game-changing role here, there aren’t going to be tales of the Little Butter Spread That Could or The Breakfast Cereal That Beat a Global Pandemic. I simply question whether the kind of Groupthink crisis-lockstep we’ve been in as brand communicators has served our consumers’ best interests – if ordinary South Africans are asking hard questions, why aren’t we?
If you aren’t listening, don’t talk
All of this should be bringing us back to the truth that the most powerful thing we can bring to bear on behalf of our brands is human insight. Our rush to sell the ‘new normal’ as a path back to business ‘post-COVID’ ignores everything our consumers, our people have gone through and will still go through. We’re creating a ‘Don’t Mention the War’ mentality for our brands.
Everything has changed. Across the world, people are re-examining their priorities, the things that matter most to them. They’re rediscovering personal treasures and pleasures that can’t be found in a mall or supermarket aisle. And, as brand communicators, there is value to be found in knowing what has changed for them and why. It’s time to acknowledge the frustrations, fears and stress – the soft PSTD of the pandemic as well as sharing, understanding and celebrating our revisited priorities with humour, empathy and authenticity.
I believe that our collective humanity is a powerful thing, that respect and care for each other is a fundamental part of building a better world and that as brands we should be taking our lead from the ordinary people whose response to this crisis has shown the true spirit of humanity (in a time of populist, bleach-swilling nonsense).
We’ve lived through The Great Pause; now do we have the courage to hit Reset?
“This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.”
Julio Vincent Gambuto