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Cultural Transformation in a Crisis

What to consider in your Corona Strategy: for now, next and after it’s all over

Covid-19 is transforming life across the globe. While this moment of crisis will be over, there is no going back to normality. From Covid-crisis, we will move into a Post-Covid world, shaped by new beliefs, values and behaviour. At a moment when the urgency of the immediate situation can overwhelm everything else, it is important not to lose sight of how this event will give rise to long-term cultural shifts, which can be prepared for today. Brands who are keeping a close eye on how consumer culture is changing, will not only ride the crisis out, but have the opportunity to emerge more resilient thereafter.

At STURM und DRANG, we’ve drawn on our studies of transforming consumer cultures to create a guide on how brands can be attuned to their community’s needs at all three stages of crisis: from initial shock, to weathering it out, and finally, how to emerge on the other side.

#1 When crisis first strikes: pivot to the fundamentals

Our understanding of human psychology shows that when crisis strikes “basic” fundamental needs for food, health, water, safety, shelter become priorities. In this context, organisations and brands who cater to these needs, like healthcare providers, supermarkets and pharmacies are at a natural advantage, and under high pressure to keep delivering without fail.

Be heroic

We are seeing heroic efforts from organisations who are pivoting their product capabilities to be more useful: Spirits brands and Perfume Houses (like BrewDog, Jägermeister, LVMH) who are helping to produce disinfectants, and many more. This is a moment of wartime spirit, when any signs of generosity and solidarity for the needs of those at the heart of the crisis will be very well received. That includes extra efforts like those of many supermarket brands in the UK, who have reserved special opening hours for only the elderly and for hospital staff. Restaurants and fast-food chains have made similar efforts around the world by providing free meals for key workers during the crisis, from salad bars and Smoothie bowls, to Pizza, KFC and Krispy Kremes. For the sake of the health care workers long-term fitness, let’s hope they don’t build up too great a reliance on the latter. This is a moment where food brands with credentials in healthiness and nutrition are in a better position to provide longer-term support – though, when framed appropriately, an injection of joyful treating can also be a good spirit-lifter.

Be Caring

Crises are times of deep emotional instability. A Statista Survey of emotions in China, when Covid-19 was at its height, ranked anxiety, sadness and fear as the predominant public sentiments. Here brands with long heritages who represent trust and endurance can provide a sense of comfort. It is a moment where the humble, infrastructural work-horses can shine: power, insurance, telecommunications, and other invisible services are newly appreciated. Facebook has regained relevance over Instagram, putting out a hugely empathetic piece of communication that brings to life the sense of alienation and emotional intensity of these times. Reassuring messaging around continuity and attentive customer service go a long way, a path chose by a new Vodafone campaign in Germany, #wekeepyougoing. Unlikely collaborations also provide a valuable feeling of togetherness and strength. In this sense we’ve noted an unprecedented move from some global telecom companies, who have placed the #stayhome message on all their customer mobile screens in a bid to support public health campaigns.

Be Careful

But remember to tread carefully. A renewed focus on the fundamentals of human life emerges in a crisis, as does a heightened cynicism towards consumer culture. Brands in luxury, beauty, fashion, leisure, or other “non-essential” categories should heed well. In Asia, Coca-Cola pre-empted this sentiment elegantly by running a social media campaign stating, that in the wake of this crisis, “we’ll be off air for a while”, and detailing which emergency relief funds they would be channeling their usual marketing dollars towards. This shows an appropriate sensitivity to the situation. Meanwhile brands that look like they are trying to profiteer from the crisis will fare less well. This is not the time to hike up the price of your disinfectant, this is the time to start handing it out for free. Similarly, if you communicate loudly, make sure your actions live up to your words. A cautionary tale from Tesla: don’t make a public promise to supply free ventilators to US hospitals, and then deliver a cheap substitute that’s not fit for purpose.

Be Aware

It’s worth thinking hard about your brand’s gut response to the shock of Covid-19. The sensation that our world is falling apart places people in a state of radical alertness. We move from a solid and reliable decision-making context, to a fluid and unpredictable one, where everything is up for re-evaluation. People can change their minds about a brand as quickly as they are being forced to change their behaviour. In this sense, the crisis moment is a huge opportunity to break or re-make reputations.

#2 When crisis settles in for the long-haul: be empathetic, generous and uplifting

Once crisis has been around for a little while, it starts to get frustrating. The Fourth-ranked emotion in the Statista Survey of Chinese emotions during Covid is annoyance. This is unsurprising given the nature of this crisis, which sees the majority of the world’s population locked up within their homes. People who are not themselves sick, are at best bored, and at worst beset by threatening financial and professional worries: Can they manage working from home? Are their jobs safe? Can they pay the rent?

Be generous

In this time brands should show awareness of the things people are worried about, and act on them. You may be in a situation to alleviate most urgent existential worries, for example offering goods or advice for free or reduced rates. It’s also important to consider your wider systemic role within society – as important as you may be to your customers, you are even more the lifeblood of your employees and business partners. In this vein, a number of large tech companies including Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft have made a commitment to carry on paying regular hourly rates, even to contingent workers who have been sent home, but are unable to work there, such as cooks and shuttle drivers. Netflix has pledged 100M USD relief to out of work freelance creatives. Meanwhile Deliveroo Hong Kong has offered its partner restaurants up to 20% reduction in commission rates during the crisis, recognizing that while the home delivery business is thriving, restaurants could do with a helping hand. And in China, Wanda Real Estate Group offered a free month’s rent to merchants in Wuhan.

Be differentiated

With many careers on the line, and indeed many people out of work entirely, opportunities for online learning, development, coaching, and fitness are also taking off. As anxiety lingers and cabin-fever increases, meditation and mental health offerings are likely to be in high demand, as are support services for families and couples whose relationships are being put under claustrophobic strain. Transforming to online sessions, offering software or monthly subscriptions for free are an easy win here, so much so, that in order to differentiate, brands need to go a little further. Ask not, how can I get people to sign up to my online service, but, in a moment when everyone is going online, what can really set me apart? And how can I best support my consumer community?

Be uplifting

After the initial shock is over there is also room for some levity of emotion, small luxuries and humour. People in lockdown appreciate being distracted and entertained. For example, Luxury brand Bottega Veneta has launched a virtual residency with a range of features from different artists. In a lighter vein, some characteristically risqué campaigns from Pornhub (#It’sOKYouCanStillTouchYourself) and Amorelie (#stayathomeandfuck) have begun speaking to this. (Pornhub incidentally has also provided its content for free in worst-hit nations, Italy, Spain and France). If you’re in a leisure, gastronomic, events or outdoor industry that has been particularly hard hit, this is also a moment to think about how you can provide value to people indoors. If cooking, film-nights, arts and crafts and family games were having a come-back before, they are only getting bigger now. Ask questions like, under lockdown, how can we celebrate a birthday? TimeOut Magazine is a great example here, transforming themselves to “TimeIn”, with tips on how to have fun inside the house. Beyond having fun in the home, people will also start thinking more about how to upgrade and improve the in-home environment, or adapt it for better home-working. On the high end, buying sofas, projectors, office chairs, re-doing garden furnishings. For the more budget-conscious, accessories like the fantastically comforting and cuddly “Mr Kirsch” will also do the trick. There’s nothing like a bit of hygge to weather out the storm.

#3 Once crisis is over: be ready for a new Post-Covid-19 culture

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic engendered the creation of public health systems in Europe. It was after the 2002 SARS outbreak that e-commerce took really took off in China. Similarly, the world will emerge from Corona 2020 a new place. What this will look like is still being shaped, but already some potent signals are emerging. For example, in Germany, shut-down McDonalds has leased its staff to a busier-than-ever Aldi for the duration of the crisis. Unprecedented until now, there’s no reason why, post-crisis, more companies shouldn’t enter into similar types of agreements, which could offer staff the option to be protected and retained beyond bouts of poor business. This is interesting because not only would it protect workers, it would also underpin fundamental structural shifts in how the job-market operates.

Looking to these sorts of events, we can identify emerging discourses that will set the stage for consumer tensions in the new Post-Covid-19 world. Understanding these, and what your perspective on them is, will help you prepare for the cultural shifts ahead. Click below to expand and explore five important Post-Covid-19 tensions:

Online /vs/ The real world

Lockdowns have made us more digitally agile, and this will have a big impact on the way we learn, work, and shop. Hundreds of institutions, including companies and universities who dragged their feet to get online, or allow remote attendance, have now been forced to do so. This radical disruption has sped up change in a way that could not have been imagined, and this will have lasting effects. Nevertheless, it has also pushed us to a very extreme behaviour.

After their lockdown experiences, consumers, workers and learners will be more comfortable in the online environment, and they will have much clearer ideas about the benefits of digital offerings. But they will also be very conscious of what they have missed from “the real world”. They will be conscious of how space is divided up between people and activities and what that means for them. They will be more aware of boundaries, the public and the private. Sensing the nearness of strangers’ and acquaintances’ bodies - their touch, smell and a feeling their movement in the space around us, will feel so much more meaningful than it ever did. We will newly appreciate the contexts in which we can move: bars, beaches, offices and cafes, and the moods, sounds and sensations that go with these. The types of chairs, the murmur of other guests’ conversations, the strange cutlery that clinks. We’ll notice suddenly that it wasn’t even about going to the place itself (which Zoom can even replicate with a customized background, or Brewdog with a virtual bar) but the act of getting there, and the freedom to slip fluidly and messily from one context and conversation to another, and back again. The digital sphere is so structured and rigid. And it is so ephemeral: lift your eyes off the screen and you’re in another place. There’s something about real world experiences that can so fully contain you in the moment.

Where, until now, we have so easily used “digital” as a byword for more advanced, more futuristic, and somehow unilaterally better, this lockdown period is an important reminder that online and real life bring very distinct types of value. It is a moment to learn how to better serve your audience in both capacities.

Health & Safety /vs/ Getting out and living the moment

A public health crisis prompts greater awareness around the value of good health, and how to look after it. Expect to see an upsurge in health and hygiene technologies, interest in health insurances, and discourse around the value of public health systems. Also expect to see more caution as regards travel, adventure, and sharing-services, where many will become more safety-conscious. Business budgets and investments may well be similarly restrained. Nevertheless, for every hesitant response, we are also likely to see someone who swings the other way, and, once things are looking up, can’t wait to bet it all on the big recovery moment. Just as there will be people who come out of lockdown too afraid to leave their homes, hesitant to meet with friends, others will be first in line for post-corona parties, raring to book their long-missed holiday in the sun and to jump on that next flight – if there are any airlines left to take them there.

Personal Freedom /vs/ Group Monitoring

Covid-19 has provoked government interventions unprecedented in most people’s lifetimes today, and until last month, almost unimaginable. Governments are re-nationalising private companies, imposing curfews, restrictions on freedom of movement, and in the case of China, monitoring people’s medical condition via their smartphones, including using apps to warn citizens if infected people are in the vicinity, and obliging people to report their temperatures. These strict governmental measures seem proven successful in fighting the Corona virus but represent enormous incursions on individual freedoms and privacy. Post Covid-19 some will want to cling on to this temporary new order. Fearful of virus resurgences they will be eager for the protection offered by close monitoring and place great trust in big institutions. Large corporations will be associated with financial stability and job security. But we will also see a violent discourse against it. Afraid of an Orwellian dystopia and of fascism, dissenters will believe in more personal choice and rights to privacy. They will argue that each individual should be taking more responsibility for their health and its effects on others, trusted to cooperate through choice rather than coercion. They will be wary of big corporate activity and seek work-arounds, promote local businesses and decentralized, encrypted information structures like Blockchain. Expect an upsurge in underground movements, conspiracy theories, micro-organisations, and a move towards more cooperative, locally owned-business models.

Self-reliance /vs/ Solidarity

If Covid-19 has taught us one thing, it’s that other people can infect you, that big cities under lockdown are only the size of your apartment, and being reliant on an empty supermarket shelf for your toilet-paper is no fun. Post Covid-19, expect people to take steps to become more self-reliant. We will see people carrying on the stocking up (in Germany “hamster-ing”) behaviour they adopted during the crisis, and adopting a prepper mentality. There will be more interest in rural, off-grid living, home-steading and autarkic ways of life. Businesses will re-think just-in-time supply- chain models, and may consider adopting more local sourcing and production structures. This is likely to be explicitly called for by governments, as we are seeing currently in the bid from Angela Merkel to Germany to produce more of its own medical equipment, including facemasks. Indeed, at a political level, many countries may fight to keep borders closed, adopt nationalistic discourses, and be quick to blame other nations for their ills, something we can already see playing out in bidding wars for mask shipments.

On the other hand, restrictions in movement have brought many neighbourhood communities together, and there’s nothing like a global pandemic for highlighting the common plight of humanity. Except it’s not quite so common when some are less well equipped to deal with it than others. The UN secretary general recently called for a global ceasefire, and there are increasing proposals for an internationally coordinated response to tackling the virus, playing out in the European Corona-bonds debate, and the UN’s 2.5 trillion USD stimulus strategy for developing countries. Post Covid-19 we expect to see more calls for international cooperation and collaboration on disease management, the climate crisis and economic recovery across the board. We also expect to see more attention on the wealth divide, both between and within nations, where housing conditions have greatly influenced how realistic it has been for different populations to comply with current social distancing rules. See India in particular, but this is true in wealthy nations too, where domestic abuse cases are on the rise. In the face of lacking support, some communities will mobilise to look after each other where their governments have failed them – a perverse example happening now in Rio’s Favelas, where drug gangs have begun enforcing a Corona lock down after their president refused to do so. There will be more consciousness of the importance of public services, a revived conversation around the welfare state and universal basic income. The debate will be thrown into sharp through focus via comparison of economic and social outcomes in countries like the US (where over 10 million people have filed for unemployment benefits), versus the European-style strategy, where this has, thus far, been avoided through the introduction of state subsidies for businesses and forms of Kurzarbeit (shorter working hours).

Humanity /vs/ Nature

Bill Gates said it in his TED talk in 2015: if the 20th century was about fear of war, in the 21st century, our biggest enemy will be the pandemic. We will emerge from this period newly sensitized to the invisible threats lurking in the natural world, able to maul humanity’s innards far more savagely than any tiger has ever done. But we will also emerge with cleaner air in our cities, a positive impact on climate change, and a tangible proof that this can be achieved by slowing down human traffic and activity. After Covid-19 there will be those that want to put humanity first, and are happy to renege benefits for the environment in favour of measures that keep people safe from infection, like single-use plastic. Others will say that’s flawed logic. They will argue that it is precisely because of human disregard for nature - such as industrial farming, manufacturing and illegal wildlife trade – that diseases like Covid-19 can come into being. Furthermore, the climate crisis and Corona are mirrors of each other: preventative measures have been proven to save lives, but inaction will hurtle us inexorably up that exponential curve quicker than you can say “save the planet’s green lung”. The consequences of the climate curve for the human race will be far greater than the damage Corona has wreaked. What is needed to protect humanity from the next crisis is not a war on nature, but getting to know and care for it better.

STURM und DRANG Perspective

At STURM und DRANG we believe businesses, brands and people have the opportunity and responsibility to build their own preferable future. Thinking beyond Covid-19, we know the climate crisis is real and urgent, and believe that the way we tackle this and other future challenges will be determined by new kinds of collaborative mindsets and behaviours that we see emerging from leading-edge culture.

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Author: Xenia Elsaesser

Xenia Elsaesser leverages her background in humanities and languages in a business context. She guides brand innovation, positioning and communications work, applying her understanding of semiotic codes, cultural narratives and anthropology. She is deeply multi-cultural and works internationally with consumers and brands.

Image references

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Image 2: "Double exposure of global Coronavirus COVID-19 cases", https://unsplash.com/photos/gkpszAElZf8

Image 3: "Brewgel: Punk sanitiser", https://www.retaildetail.eu/en/news/cosmetics/corona-economy-action-hand-gel-dior-filliers-and-brewdog

Image 4: "Stay calm, stay safe, we love you", https://unsplash.com/photos/4VKkk1Qe-rc

Image 5: "Coca Cola: We'll be off air for a while", https://news.mb.com.ph/2020/03/21/coca-cola-philippines-re-channels-p150-m-ad-budget-to-covid-19-relief-efforts/

Image 6: "Stay at home", https://unsplash.com/photos/P_2za841j_w

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Image 8: "Laptop", https://unsplash.com/photos/qnWPjzewewA

Image 9: "PornHub: It's ok, you can touch yourself", https://www.reddit.com/r/AdPorn/comments/fjuynh/pornhub_its_ok_to_touch_yourself_1697x2400/

Image 10: "Festival Girl", http://pickymagazine.de/tag/sea-you-festival/

Image 11: "Backstreet Boys", https://www.today.com/popculture/backstreet-boys-reunite-perform-i-want-it-way-5-different-t177072

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Image 13: "Covid-19 Monitoring",

https://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article206939411/Coronavirus-Diese-App-soll-jetzt-das-Virus-killen.html

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https://www.businessinsider.com/doomsday-prepper-supply-companies-trump-election-2017-2?r=DE&IR=T

Image 15: "Climate Change", https://www.instagram.com/p/B-aVW_GH29v/