With the global pandemic forcing a complete restructure of how the entire world lives, works and interacts, let’s explore where brands, businesses and individuals might find inspiration and strategies to rapidly adapt and reinvent how they engage and serve their communities in these challenging times.
I write this from an open air cafe in a leafy suburb of Singapore. It’s a weekday lunchtime and almost every table – though spaced widely apart – is full of Singaporeans and multinational expat regulars. People are relaxed and in good spirits, chatting across tables, sharing stories. It would all seem normal except much of the conversation is around what’s going on with friends, family and colleagues overseas who have suddenly found themselves in crisis mode as Covid-19 cases are exploding across the world and major cities and entire countries implement full lockdown and self-isolation protocols.
A mere eight weeks ago though, it was Singapore that was on the frontlines of the Coronavirus outbreak, with the highest numbers of cases outside of Hubei Province. But Singapore was prepared for this. Protocols and pandemic response plans have been on stand-by since SARS ground this city-state to a halt in 2002-03. So for us, the rapid government response has meant that Covid-19 has been a slow burn for us. We’ve had over two months of getting used a Covid-compliant life and in that time we’ve gotten comfortable surfing the waves of constant change and constant vigilance. Back in January, Chinese New Year celebrations were cancelled, and since early February we’ve become more and more socially dispersed, business continuity protocols have been implemented and adjusted, hand sanitizer and temperature checks at the entrance to every public building has become the norm.
Only now that the pandemic has reached all corners of the globe, have we been able to reach a worldwide consensus that global mobility must be halted for the virus to be dealt to country-by-country and mass loss of life mitigated. That was a unprecedented and confronting reality to face, that the world must close up shop now if we want to ever to open our doors again in the future.
But we can take solace knowing that millions of people across parts of Asia have already experienced 8 weeks of quarantine, and they are now starting to see the light of day once again. Quarantine measures are working, and businesses are beginning to reopen in parts of China, albeit behind mandatory face masks. Take solace knowing that everyone, everyone, around the world is in this together now. It is no longer an alien experience happening in a far off land, someone else’s problem that the rest of us can forget about. Together, we are embarking on the single biggest shared experience since world war two. But unlike world war two, when the shared experience was one of violence and aggression, the Covid-19 pandemic is demanding a far rarer response from the citizens of the world: calmness and compassion. It is a global crisis resulting in staggering tragedy and loss of life that will profoundly affect the lives of billions of people across the world – there is no way to sugar coat that; but there is no war on resources, land, food supply, nor water. And more encouragingly, the most effective weapon we have in mitigating it’s spread, is ‘simply’ to all practice society-wide social distancing and self-isolation. In the coming months we’ll see the length of quarantine restrictions waterfall around the world, with recovery times varying drastically by market. Covid-19 will prove to be both transformative and reformative across many sectors and societies once we come out the other side.
But for now we are left asking ourselves, where do we go from here?
Well, indoors, mostly. Yes, it feels surreal and a bit uncomfortable. Yes, it will be harder for some than others. The global community as a whole is facing many months of limited movement and isolation with untold challenges ahead of them. The quicker we can all accept it as the new norm, with new rules for engagement, the quicker we can adapt to it and act to shape it.
And many already are.
The global pandemic is forcing everyone to slow down, to completely reimagine how we work, how we live our lives and interact with one another, and we are already reevaluating what and who we value in our societies. Italy is a beautifully tragic example of how being thrown into darkness illuminates what matters and what holds us together in the face of adversity. Human connection matters. The support of our neighbours and community matters. Access to public healthcare and the internet are human rights. Music, dance, song, and humour are all healing and necessary.
And then, there’s the realisation that maybe we don’t need to make the world spin faster and faster each quarter. Maybe what the planet and the collective “we” need is to slow down, take stock, and see what the world looked like if we were prioritising health and wellbeing over GDP growth and stakeholder returns, even just for a little while. In our collective efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, we are choosing to prioritise, above all else, the protection of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
Feeling like a wise old Covid-19 veteran with wisdom to share from my time hunkered down in the back of the trenches, I’ve been looking beyond the turmoil and chaos of the headlines around the world to see what’s staying afloat. And the two things I see that are consistent and enduring, is creativity and community.
If proactive brands and businesses of all scale and size want to stay relevant and still be standing in three, six or twelve months, they need to get creative in how they can adapt to serve the emerging needs of people and families, and the communities their businesses and brands exist within. Actions speak louder than words and profiteering will be quickly called out.
For many, their traditional ways of conducting business and reaching customers are being upended, sidelined, or chucked off the ship completely. Mindless mass-marketing that lacks empathy and relevance is a grievous insult to the sensitivity of our collective condition. But there are also numerous new needs spaces opening up where those that are brave and responsive can use this shared experience as a catalyst to respond to the emerging needs of their users/consumers/audience/communities who are operating under quarantine and in survival mode. In doing so, they can be part of a global sense of unity and a redirection of purpose on an unprecedented scale, and completely rewire how they reach and serve their consumers. The impetus to persevere is a creative challenge and a delicate balancing act.
How can we use our limitations to harness our creativity to connect with and serve our communities?
Here are just a few uplifting and inspirational new behaviours and trends we are seeing arise:
I guess I’ll just entertain myself.
Traditional cinema and network-based entertainment is getting disrupted again. Big cast-based TV shows and films have been forced to stop production. Cinemas have been shut down and new movie releases postponed. The late night comedian talk shows in the US that can no longer film in front of a live audience, however, are embracing home quarantine orders and finding low budget and creative ways to keep their shows on viewers screens. The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon is the epitome of the working from home experience. He’s hired his six year old daughter to make the title graphics, his wife as camera operator and each day he’s figuring out how to improve the show and keep it fresh with the limited resources he has. The struggle is real, when his kids interrupt and do their best to distract during his Skype interviews with celebrities (also in their homes). But this acceptance and perseverance humanises him and unites his audience in the shared experience, further illustrated with the viewer submitted segment #MyQuarantineInSixWords.
People will always look for levity and escape. And if they can’t find it, they’ll make it. Quarantine diaries and skits from all over the world are hilarious and inspiring, but they also serve to let people share their experiences and bond over a shared experience suffering and help ease their mental and emotional load. The creativity in this content is next level comedy gold and gives so much insight into how different people are dealing with it (or are completely not dealing with it). With more adults in isolation, we’re now seeing more from the pre-millennial generations getting in on the fun, being silly and using comedy as a creative outlet and therapy, opening the door to their lives on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok. Professional sports commentator @NickHeathSport, with no sports to commentate on has resorted to commentating on everyday life. During lockdown, the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma has left its security guard Tim (#hashtagthecowboy) in charge of the premise, and its Twitter account. The mundane and boring has become the most wonderful muse.
We’re all in(side) this together
More of everyday life and casual socialising is being pushed online and starting to find its rhythm too, in ways that previously were avoided. Friends and family groups all buying the same boardgames and card games and figuring out how to adapt them to play each other over video. Industry networking groups like strtgst are turning their meetups into virtual gatherings on Zoom and maintaining their community activity via Facebook groups, Slack channels and WhatsApp, and gaining previously unreachable participants thanks to the new virtual accessibility. Clubs, festivals and performing artists are staging virtual performances on Twitch, Zoom and You Tube. Virtual tourism experiences are feeding the wanderlust too, with Time Out becoming Time In and promoting virtual rides at Disneyland, virtual tours of museums and palaces, and free live-streaming of musical performances. In South Korea, drive-in movies are back in vogue.
Quick moving business, big and small, are adapting to support their customers’ need for shared group interactions: To nurture community and Hope, TED launched TED Connects and TED Circles to curate thought-provoking and uplifting content and conversations in response to Covid-19. Netflix introduced Netflix Party to promote a sense of togetherness with friends and family without the health hazards or hassle of trying to sync movies long distance. So much more than a YouTube tutorial, Paintclub Ireland has moved its concept of painting with friends over a cocktail out of the pubs and into the living room. Promoting the benefits of arts for mental wellbeing, creating a time consuming, relaxing and accessible way for people of all ages to maintain a social anchor in their week. “Social distancing without the social isolation”, as one artist-in-training put it.
Brands that activate the power of togetherness can give their audience a sense of reassurance – they can find strength in knowing even though they are isolated they are not alone. We see this expressed beautifully in Facebook’s We’re never lost if we can find each other, and in the B2B world in GoDaddy’s #OpenWeStand, which poignantly addresses the need to support and give guidance to brick and mortar businesses that are forced to close their shop doors and open their laptops.
Self-isolating is the new self-care
It feels like every year the pace of life is getting faster and faster, everyone squeezing more and more things and places into their day. But what can be gained when we are forced to slow down, stay still, do less? Those WFH hours that we get back by not commuting everyday – do you use them to get more sleep, make pancakes with the kids or read that book that’s gathering dust? Diverting that time and energy into our own self-preservation or using it to care for others is luxury we don’t normally leave room for.
If the momentum and energy is there to use this time to ideate and radically innovate, great. If there is an obvious role for you to play, then rock on, lead the way. But taking a breather, and giving your staff and teams a chance to catch their breath, can give you the space to move forward with clarity rather than reactivity. Stillness is needed to achieve mindful and purposeful thinking. Cherish the slow down. Embrace the hermit life for a moment and experience the introspection that comes with solitude. Silence truly is golden, and for some, is a more appropriate response than being active just for the sake of it.
Messaging and activity we’re seeing:
- Self-care also needs to extend to family units at this time too. Parents, especially working parents, are under pressure from multiple sources. Space needs to be given to them to look after their families.
- Audible has made all audiobook subscriptions for children free, as have many others made their resources and services freely available for home-bound kids.
- Nike’s #PlayInside messaging encourages people to share how they are staying active and ‘in the game’ whilst in the house, sensitively acknowledging the link between physical and mental wellness.
- Wellness practitioners and corporate consultants are offering free online yoga/meditation/mindfulness/corporate resilience classes to those that need it.
- Companies that already have mental health assistance and wellness programmes are taking a position of leadership, sharing resources and tools publicly and for free. At a time when paid marketing promotions are tone-deaf, sharing your corporate wellness resources, or some of your core services, if relevant, to a wider audience could actually benefit people.
Be generous, and if possible, give away for free whatever you can. Lift others up, and support those that support others. Generosity and empathy are transformative and a powerful foundation for new relationships. This is an obvious opportunity space for the self-care, wellness, mindfulness industries – who else could play in this space? Who else is well positioned to offer authentic and relevant support?
Stop. Collaborate and Pivot.
Creativity, and the power to find creative solutions, is not some mystical power possessed by a special few – it does not occur despite limitations, it happens because of limitations. The spirit of innovation thrives on obstacles that force us to figure things out in new and unexpected ways. Innovation thrives on collaboration and uses existing knowledge as a launch pad. Now is not the time to stay in your lane. Now is the time to adapt and evolve, to keep on keeping on. For some this will be a short term venture, for others it will be legacy defining.
We’re seeing it in whiskey and gin distilleries like now manufacturing designer hand sanitizer, textiles manufacturers swapping t-shirts for face masks, Ford, GE and 3M are collaborating on new respirator concepts, while GM and Dyson are to re-tooling to make ventilators.
The whole world is on line and watching and learning from each other like never before. The hive mind is buzzing. We’re able to look into the future to those ahead of us on the pandemic growth curve and adjust our course preemptively. We can look to our counterparts in other markets for strategies to adapt, and for inspiration in how to deliver value and stay relevant.
Community is where it’s at: Mutual Aid, Collective Care, Caremongering and Social Solidarity
What the rapid spread of Covid-19 has illustrated is how truly and incredibly interconnected the world actually is. It has illustrated that our fates and livelihoods across the globe are too interdependent to ignore. Community-based social care movements build upon this interconnectedness, rather than fearing it. We’re all in this together, and our actions – whether it be greed or kindness – has a ripple effect upon our communities, industries and nations. Will your response to adversity cause public kickback or public acclaim? Alongside the stories of nurses facing empty supermarket shelves and the elderly worried about being left alone, we’re also seeing an increase in good samaritans finding creative ways to be kind and helpful to their neighbours, and the self-coordinating of community responses, with an emphasis on fostering empathy, not panic – putting the unity back in community action. Alongside stories of billionaires not giving workers sick leave we’re seeing startups finding Creative ways to keep employees paid.
Before the 2.5 million volunteers signed up to UK’s Covid-19 mutual aid initiative to support vulnerable citizens, there was #ViralKindness spreading elsewhere in grassroots movements: Caremongering in Canada, The Kindness Pandemic in Australia, cafe’s sharing their produce supply chain with residential neighbours left with nothing due panic buying, customers demanding supermarkets reserve safe shopping hours for elderly and the immunocompromised, and buy-one-give-one meal schemes for the homeless.
We’re seeing individuals with spare time and resources step up and take action to support both the obvious and subtle needs of their communities. They’re devising simple ways to make it work and filling the gaps in care. Food service businesses are making radical pivots and restructuring their business models in order to keep their staff employed and to cater to the changing needs of their patrons: shutting down in-restaurant dining in favour of delivery, take-out, frozen meals and drive through. Could other sectors learn from this people-focused adaptability?
Covid-19 has in barely two months impacted the entire world and fundamentally altered how societies operate, and now we all find ourselves having to reimagine how to exist and sustain ourselves in this unfamiliar world. When everything feels out of control, how we as individuals within our businesses and our communities choose to respond is something that we can control. That mindset will create an environment in which the collective “we” can innovate, adapt and survive, and possibly, find surprising ways to thrive. What was radical and inconceivable two months ago is not only accepted now, it is demanded as essential. This is the opportunity that must be seized.
Instead of feeling impotent and helpless, afraid of where the unchartered waters may take you, focusing on helping others can give a renewed purpose to ourselves, and, if authentic, our brands. Don’t just sit there – step up and step into it. Do something. Do everything you can. Courage, conviction and creativity are required in equal measure.
In a crisis, in the face of adversity, you need to be brave, authentic and sensitive in how you respond to the challenges ahead of you. Will you get stuck worrying about what you can’t control or what you’ve lost? Or will you get creative and pursue a direction where you can keep going, and keep others going, and together make a difference in this strange and uncertain world? Being the pragmatic optimists we are, here at fst, we choose the latter. When the walls are crumbling around you, seek the new pathways which open up in the cracks. The only way out is through.