What have we learned in the crisis?

Craig Mawdsley
Craig Mawdsley

There's going to be a recession, and if your brand is in a category that suffered in 2008, you're probably at risk this time round.

Many writers regard Seinfeld as the greatest TV sitcom of all time. Famously, the principle of the show from the outset was "no hugging, no learning". Over the past month, we have all got used to a lack of hugs (outside the immediate household, at least), but in contrast to Jerry and the gang, we have been doing lots of learning.

What have we learned?

We have learned how flexible and resilient our industry is.

We have all spent enough time in recent years beating ourselves up for not changing fast enough, not going online rapidly enough, not adapting our ways of working with sufficient alacrity.

But, as it turns out, you can shut all our offices with very little notice, send us to work in remote locations (often with small children running around in the background), restrict our ability to produce anything the way we did before, and we do just fine. More than fine, actually. In some ways, we positively thrive, creating new ways of working, moving faster and finding audiences with great creative ideas. Just like we always have.

We have more than one channel to use and more than one way to work, and it’s serving us very well right now.

Of course, we can’t adapt our way out of emergency client budget cuts but, thanks to furloughs, pay cuts and restricted hours, we have protected our businesses. And we have amassed a wealth of data (thank you, Mr Field) to advocate for our services through the tough times ahead.

We have learned that you can’t build a brand idea in the middle of a crisis.

Starting from scratch now is a bit like trying to buy insurance after you just crashed your car. It’s going to be much more expensive and probably won’t cover you anyway. Of course, we can all do crisis comms, but I’m willing to wager that the only things that will be remembered will be the things that fitted an existing brand idea.

You’re much more likely to remember that Nike pivoted its long-standing commitment that everyone with a body is an athlete to "play at home" than brand X or Y that suddenly told you to stay at home or offered a discount to NHS workers, just like everyone else did.

I’m not saying that giving discount to NHS workers is not a laudable thing to do. It is. Just that these laudable efforts should not be confused for brand-building. One thing that every brand should have learned in the past few weeks is that if you don’t already have a genuine and well-defined brand idea, it might be a good idea to get one. You know, for next time.

We have learned that we are entering a world of risk, not certainty.

Many people are making very confident predictions that whatever trend they were advocating before will be accelerated by the crisis. Many of these confident predictions run in opposite directions ("We will never want to leave the house again!" "We will run to the pubs and restaurants as soon as we are released!"). But, of course, nobody really knows what’s going to happen. That’s the joy of human beings. They do unpredictable things. Get used to it.

We do, however, know with some certainty where the risks are.

There’s going to be a recession, and if your brand is in one of the categories that suffered in 2008, then you’re probably at risk this time round.

Online has accelerated and if your brand doesn’t have a plan to thrive online (or some compelling reasons why your offline offer is better), then you might struggle.

There will be cultural and possibly legal concerns about mass gatherings for some time and if your business depends on them, you need to help people feel OK about it. 

All these things are prudent to prepare for, even if they’re not certainties. And they’re all things that advertising and communication can help with.

There’s more of the future that can be shaped by creativity than we sometimes think. Economic growth will be driven as much by how we all feel about the future as it is by the restrictions we face (Keynes’ "animal spirits").

Influencing how people feel is what we do.

We need to learn that right now it is the most important thing we can do.

Craig Mawdsley is joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

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