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What happens in the real world when we all go home?

This post was written for Creative Brief and can be found here

I remember the real world. The one where we went to shops, had coffee and talked to our neighbours (well I didn’t, but I know people who do). Casual conversations with colleagues and passing acquaintances oiled the cogs of our social and business lives, and all around us a real-world landscape was populated by brands on hand to meet every need and want.

And then we all went home.

The experience is a bit like giving up sugar in your tea. A terrifying thought that quickly becomes normal. Better, in fact. And no one goes back.

In this new real world, everyone is having to recalibrate.

Only weeks ago, Heinz tinned soups were written off as a relic of the 20th century, and now the shelves are bare. FMCG categories that were struggling for relevance are suddenly struggling to meet demand. Even more surprising, the emergent food delivery platforms that were seen as the answer to our new stay at home lives… didn’t deliver. No one feels safe. And when ‘anchor tenants’ McDonalds and Wagamama pulled out, they were sunk.

Unprecedented changes ahead

The complexity of the pandemic has knocked most of our current wisdom off of its already precarious perch. Nothing works when everything stops. Priorities shift. The real world, it turns out, presents bigger challenges than not being able to pop out for a coconut milk macchiato.

Unprecedented changes are ahead, from cinema to shopping. It’s hard to imagine what the hospitality sector will look like a year from now. Even Airbnb, posterchild of the era, is warning of possible failure (and they’re profitable)

On the other hand, Amazon could be on the brink of its finest hour – ‘the new Red Cross’ - a company admired for keeping housebound citizens healthy, fed and watered. But whilst I’m surrounded by people who love their smartphone dialogue with Asos, Monzo and Uber, these brands are prescribing a tone and a way of doing things that was well timed to align with the mobile millennial mindset. Like most of us, what they say and what they do are quite different. They were built on a model of relentless productivity that is suddenly out of step with our new slow-motion WFH reality. And in this new real world, everyone is having to recalibrate.

So how will brands respond? What will it take to reconnect with customers who have become used to no sugar in their tea? How will they simultaneously tempt us and reassure us?

The New Local

Maybe this is the beginning of the New Local. As communities stay in place for an extended period, a new paradigm is emerging. Our local garage put out a Facebook post offering collection and delivery – completely uninteresting, but completely relevant. The local shop is a hub for everything from postage to toilet rolls (obviously), but it’s also set up a mini foodbank for local residents who are struggling. The response has been generous. The independent food and drink scene is one of the hardest hit at the moment as cash runs out. Will customers feel a desire to support a business and help it back to its feet rather than defaulting to Starbucks or Cote? How might this play out in other sectors: it may feel amazing to have a next day delivery from a warehouse in Barnsley, but seriously, 200 miles for a t shirt? (appreciate not everyone lives 200 miles from Barnsley). Morrisons are categorising more of their stores as hubs for online shopping – unsurprising in the current climate – but interesting to observe how our new habit for home delivery (it was only 7% of sales before the pandemic) could influence the localisation of supermarkets – they have been saying it for years (usually means a few eggs from a local farm), but perhaps this is the jolt they need to start doing it.

Maybe this is the moment when proper agile brands will redefine themselves as truly customer led.

The New Excellent

Maybe this the beginning of the New Excellent. From mediocre cinemas, bars and clubs to generic protein-juice drinks and pointless apps, we have been bamboozled by their ‘must have’ comms and tone of voice for years. After the long wait indoors, are we just going to accept all this stuff again? The air has (literally) cleared and brands that communicate with clarity, integrity and quality will cut through. Big Four banks, which have axed virtually any service that involves an actual person, are going to have to move fast to keep up with the stunning work of fintechs like Starling Bank. EE have a Newcastle-based call-centre that combines a reassuring (and brilliant Geordie-friendly) source of employment with impressive service and value. Vue has figured out how to make cinema going easy, cheap and exciting. The venues aren’t dressed up with bars and lounges that nobody uses. The brand is focused on what customers actually need from the experience and it delivers, relentlessly, at £4.99 a pop.

Times of conflict (and this is one of them) usually trigger greater and more rapid innovation. So maybe this is the moment when proper agile brands will redefine themselves as truly customer-led, delivering products and services that make a proper difference to the new real world that we all now live in.


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