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Times of Disruption: Facing a Global Pandemic

Trying to understand our collective future feels more challenging than ever. From my tiny – and socially distanced! – corner of Miami, I’m observing more than ever and trying to make sense of it all. I can’t promise answers, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who says they can provide you with them in the midst of uncertain times, but I hope we can think together, and share ideas with one another.

How times change

The events we’re currently living through are not easily categorized. You don’t need me to list what has happened in the past few weeks, you likely have already seen too much of that across the news and social media. I’m also aware that to some it might seem superficially mercantile to discuss brands, strategy and customer behavior in the face of a pandemic. But, the practical reality of global economic trade means that we need to keep the world spinning for the good of all mankind. The wheels of the world need to keep turning so workers are paid and families are fed. Those wheels are best greased by effective strategies.

It’s easy to see we’re living in interesting times. The harder question is: what does it all mean? Where is all this taking us?

The impact of the Coronavirus in our society will be layered and complex, going from disbelief and social reassurance to the progressive perception of the impact on our lives to a common sense of anxiety of what’s next, to the realization of eventual solutions by self-separation in society and self-contained offices, ateliers and retreats. We’ve been forced to slow down. We refuse to board a plane. We work from home (raise your hand who upgraded to a paid videoconference service last week!). We connect with our friends and family through a screen. As we do so, we are learning to become self-sufficient, mindful, and patient, also, fun became virtual: from social media challenges, to Netflix Parties and home workouts.

Suddenly, the fashion advertisings that pops up on my screen while I browse the web look bizarre and out of place. The hotel ads that enter my computer space seem invasive and ridiculous. The thought of future projects are vague and uncertain. Every new day we question each system and structure we have known since birth, and are forced to consider their possible collapse.

This is not a financial crisis but a disruption crisis. People stopped moving around and going out. People have stopped spending. Vacations have been all cancelled, cultural and sports events have been cancelled or postponed; even church services have been suspended! And, even if these are early days in terms of finding answers, the world is definitely resetting. The system we live in, and so many old assumptions are changing too as you read this.

Still, it’s possible to write some words on the potential future of this new world. If we look at the current consumer trends, there is an emerging and common denominator: This virus is an enhancing performance drug for disruptive companies.

The pandemic will act as a catalyst for a number of big trends that, up until now, have amounted to more talk than action. If avoiding physical contact, and the potential for spread of the virus that comes with it, is a new driver, maybe this will end up finally establishing contactless payments, seat-less restaurants, and electric cars (who wants to touch a gas pump now?). We’ve all known for years that we can’t keep flying around the world at the rate we have been (and yes, I’m guilty of this myself). Will the pandemic be the shock that finally changes this behavior?

New Beginnings

Innovation is more likely to happen during times of crisis, and there’s been evidence that the rate of innovation has been slowing down during the past few years. This pandemic gave us perspective on how we’ve been collectively stuck (work, travel, diet, sustainability) in patterns that clearly were no longer serving us nor the environment, but that we still, somehow, couldn’t shake off.

It has been apparent for a while now that in order to survive and preserve the planet, we needed to make fundamental changes to the way we live, travel, consume and entertain. There is no way we can continue to produce as many goods and the many choices we have grown accustomed to. And, the debilitating mass of information about nothing at all that we are exposed to daily has not helped this cause. Instead, it has numbed our culture. Although we’ve witnessed a growing perception amongst younger generations that the idea of ownership is losing its attraction.

Seemingly, we have been doing business as usual, while waiting to see if these issues would just dissipate by without our intervention. The Coronavirus has suddenly changed our pace, and has forcibly taken the decision-making out of our hands, slowing things down to a scary pace. Until now, we forgot what it was like to do things without rushing. We were used to immediate answers, at the cost of the mindful search for solutions.

Now is the time when improvisation and creativity will become our most valued assets.  We have a blank page ready for a new beginning in our hands. Building a new economy will require a lot of insight and courage but when we look back, the real question will be:

On which side of history did you stand?

The past few weeks we’ve seen a lack of leadership at every level. The postmodern view of leadership, shared daily on social media, includes: emotional intelligence, social influence, charisma, generosity, and empathy. However, this view makes leadership appear to be more like a support group rather than the extremely difficult task it is. But, we’ve also seen leadership done right.

LVMH turned around its manufacturing lines at brands like Guerlain, Parfums Christian Dior and Givenchy to mass manufacture hand sanitizers for French hospitals. This gesture will be in consumers’ minds for many years to come. Other companies such as Levi’s, Lush and Apple, have also moved quickly to reassure their employees that they will be paid despite global closure of stores.

On the ‘other’ extreme of leadership skills falls Sir Richard Branson who asked his 8,500 employees at Virgin Atlantic to take eight weeks’ unpaid leave– suddenly the acid test for any company is coronavirus-colored.

Now is the time to make good on those beautifully crafted ’employer value proposition’ PowerPoint presentations, featuring the classic hits of respect, integrity, and commitment. As the Coronavirus crisis deepens – and we should remember this is only the start – we will see more examples of brands that lived up to their values and of those who failed miserably, leaving customers, employees and, the broader public on their own. Consumers have long memories, and now is the time to focus on the long-term brand-building and stay true to the values that companies have prided themselves on in their website’s mission statement.

There is no immediate cure, but this virus, too, shall pass.

Society will change. The way we do things will shift as new drivers for innovation emerge. Our new (and current) normal will change us in fundamental ways. How we do things has changed, and many of these practices will stay with us in the post-pandemic time to come, accelerating consumer trends that were already emerging.

In times of significant crises, and such as any of the major recessions or market disruptions we have lived through, reinvention takes place. Let’s not forget that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. I encourage companies, in times when all their competitors will be shrinking their budgets, shutting down stores, and cutting their payroll, to take advantage of this reset. We can use this time to reinvent what we do, bring our consumers new alternatives in a time where they are more flexible and receptive of new ways of doing things, create new value and even maybe reinvent our brands. Let’s be sensible to the time we ate at, but let’s not forget that this might be an interesting window of opportunity to think, assess and innovate. These are strategically important times for your company.  Maybe, and I am hopeful for this maybe, we recreate another and better system, to be put in place with more respect for the environment and humankind.

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