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How can creative disruption shape the future?

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How brands can plan in the face of uncertainty

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As we emerge from the worst of the Covid-19 crisis, it’s unequivocally clear that change is afoot. In this post-pandemic landscape, the challenges are immediate and visceral: consumers face financial uncertainty, brands are under pressure and the future of physical retail remains up in the air.

While predictions on our collective future abound, the truth is more prosaic – ultimately, no one knows what is going to happen.

For brands, navigating uncharted waters can feel dangerous and uncertain. As research agencies release endless surveys and consultancies share countless resources and reports, information overload is a real concern. To make matters worse, too much data can lead to inertia, since many brands would rather hunker down than rock the boat.

In the face of adversity, apathy isn’t an answer.

At Initials, we have distilled these surplus insights down into an approach which harnesses the trends we can see right now whilst acknowledging the variables on the horizon and the evolving consumer behaviours that are likely to emerge. An approach which will adapt and evolve in relation to the shifting future we face.

At the beginning of the outbreak, the pace of the pandemic meant that laws, consumer behaviours and information were changing on a daily basis. For some brands, paralysis took over; playing it safe became an appealing option.

Fast forward two-plus months and this strategy no longer holds water.

While shoring up cash reserves and fighting for financial fitness remain pressing concerns, brands need to plan for future recovery and take action in a meaningful way.

Where should brands start?

Interestingly, the Covid-19 pandemic brought about a period of temporary singularity – the entire country experienced the same thing at the same time: social distancing, remote working and isolation. As we emerge from this sense of oneness, there’s a tacit shift towards more nuanced conversations and behaviours. Today, individual experiences vary massively: some face the prospect of lost finances and family tragedies, while others have seen little personal impact at all. Within those industry-standard consumer groups are evolving tribes based on our attitude towards lockdown rules, empathy towards those around us and more beyond that.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Finding a clear solution is not as easy as saying, ’These are the 10 cultural shifts you need to focus on’. While others speak in definitive, we must act with consideration.

To find the way forward, brands need to look at navigating change, rather than pointing to a clear finish line in the distance.

As planners, our role is to simplify, not add. To make sense of the past few months, Initials has developed a clear roadmap for brands with distinct phases of recovery and growth, with each phase triggered by specific social and economic macrotrends. Within each of these phases there are a number of possible scenarios defined by the severity of the impact of several economic and viral levers. Through this rigorous but pragmatic framework, Initials believe that they can work with their brands to develop multiple strategies, meaning that brands can act quickly to engage consumers when the time is right with activity that is true to their brand, to drive short-term sales and long-term brand equity

An opportunity for new and better

To plan for the future requires an equal measure of poise and adaptability.

As consumers reappraise the status-quo and brands face intensifying pressures, a new and distinctive approach to planning is required to help brands come out on top.

In order to move out of survival mode, brands must accept that planning needs to change. In the past, timelines set the stage for brand decision-making. Today, triggers and micro-responses may serve a greater purpose. It’s no longer reasonable for brands to point towards a north star and head there directly. Instead, agencies must equip brands with the insights and tools to navigate the obstacles that lie ahead.

In this sense, having multiple contingency options will help brands stay better positioned to deal with uncertainty. By assessing several components, levers and triggers, it’s possible to plan for multiple scenarios: for example, a major recession at Christmas, a second peak of infections that might lead to Christmas in lockdown or a resounding return to in-person events in 2021.

Surviving to thriving

At Initials, we have been developing several strategies to help brands avoid inertia. The idea being that brands must be prepared for every eventuality, so when there is a time to relax, organizations can say the right things, at the right time, to the right people. Taking a proactive approach will help brands avoid knee-jerk decision-making, which can have damaging and lasting consequences on brand reputation.

As part of this strategy, brands should feel empowered to step away from broad-brushed approaches that undermine the creative opportunity, and instead move towards segmental nuances. For brand planners, micro-trends (and associated challenges) must be analysed and applied to frameworks that make them feel more accessible.

This suggestion is counterintuitive to planners. While it may stray from the accepted norm of singular vision and refined distillation, it would be unwise for any brand or agency to imply they possess a definitive answer.

Ultimately, within this world of turbulence and change, brands now have a unique opportunity for new and better. But to plan for the future and achieve success, a tempered and well-balanced and adaptable approach is required.

Now is the time to distil, to reset, to consider the future and to develop a strategy that accounts for multiple variables and outcomes.

With this strategy in tow, brands will feel ready to face tomorrow – not through fear or uncertainty – but with a confidence that instils hope for the future.

Josh Tilley, senior strategist and Mirella Mokbel, strategic shopper lead at Initials

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