'Exit strategy' is one of those terms we’ve been hearing a lot of recently. It’s defined as "a pre-planned means of extricating oneself from a situation that is likely to become difficult or unpleasant". What we're living through in this age of Covid-19 has been and still is unpleasant and has made many aspects of our lives and careers more difficult – and governments have had to plan how to gradually phase our lives back to some kind of functional semblance of ‘normality’.
But governments aren’t the only entities tussling with transition. Businesses from every sector have been rattled - some gently, most ferociously - by the measures brought in place to curb the spread of Covid-19. And following the peak, the challenge is and has been to ride the waves of uncertainty while various sectors open up. One might imagine that brands (and their agencies) would have some kind of exit strategy of their own for this period, readying themselves to come out the other side of the crisis roaring into the ‘new normal’, a phrase that you are likely used to by now whether you hate it or not.
However, after punting the notion of ‘exit strategies’ over to a group of strategists, it seems that this might not be the wisest mindset with which to approach the coming months. From conversations with people from the likes of Italy, the US and the UK, it quickly became clear that the term ‘exit strategy’, with the rigidity that it invokes, just isn’t suitable for a brand attempting to respond to a situation as severe and unpredictable as the one we’re experiencing now.
“‘Exit strategy’ seems to imply going back to the way things were before, but absent a vaccine or reliable therapeutic, an ‘exit’ may not be the most realistic way to frame our expectations,” says Anna Vlajkovic, group strategy director at MullenLowe Los Angeles. Anna has spent the last several months studying the progression of the pandemic to help brands adapt their plans and respond thoughtfully during the ongoing crisis. She points to the fact that, even in a reopened world not everyone is going to feel comfortable indulging in everything that it offers due to lingering anxiety and the threat of a second wave. “Brands may want to think about this less in terms of an exit strategy, and more in terms of a moving-forward strategy,” she says. “And to move forward, most businesses are at a crossroads: to either return to business as usual and start recovering from the hit or invest in adaptation to ensure they survive as the situation continues to change. You can see it already in the restaurant industry in the US: some restaurants are reopening as their pre-Covid selves, and others are rearranging their layouts and investing in patio space to allow significant physical distance between tables. In a second wave of restrictions, which is more likely to stay open?”
Harjot Singh is the chief strategy officer for Europe and UK at McCann. He warns that exit strategies are something for countries and their governments to think about. “They are based on policy,” he says. “Which makes me think of bureaucracy. Slowness. Everything brands don’t need or want to be in times like this. They don’t need to be bureaucratic, turgid, long-drawn or obtuse.
“I hate the term ‘new normal’,” he adds. “Normal, by default, can’t be new. It’s about returning to a recalibrated world. It’s not the new normal. You can’t enter this, like bang, I’m here. For me, it’s about re-assimilation and not re-entry. When you have to re-assimilate you have to spend as much time observing as you do responding. Assimilation immediately places you in a position where you need to respond versus be reactive.”
Jeremy Cesarec, strategy director at US agency Planet Propaganda, likens Harjot’s idea of re-assimilation to the challenges that unfold upon having your first child. “You come up with a great parenting strategy,” he says. “And then find out that the rug gets pulled out from under you every three months or so. You learn some enduring things at each stage and apply some of those learnings to the next one, but things end up being a lot more volatile and less linear than you’d hoped.”
Flexibility, adaptability, nimbleness – these values have been touted on the industry conference circuit for some years. But now, agencies and brands are being tested as to how well they have embraced that mindset. No one quite knows what the post-Covid world will look like, and how the scenery will change along that journey – but it is agencies’ jobs to help their clients get there.
So how can agencies help brands navigate a pathway when they themselves don’t have a map either? “In order to survive, brands should resonate with the people’s mood and keep adapting to the deep change that their lifestyles are undergoing,” says Lavinia Garulli, creative and strategy principal at Isobar Italy. “Since we can’t see an upcoming exit, brands should probably better have an ‘accompanying strategy’. In these times more than ever social media could be pivotal to stay closer with the audience.”
Anna from MullenLowe LA adds that brands can’t think about the coming six months or years as a plan but instead as many contingency plans. “While adaptability is important, most brands can’t react in real time,” she says. “However, any brand can be aggressively overprepared, with multiple plan B’s approved and ready to go if the right conditions are met. Several months into the pandemic, we know enough to predict at least a few possibilities worth being prepared for: a ‘slow burn’ progression of the virus with a low, persistent number of cases might desensitise people and allow brands to act more ‘normal’ in their communications, the way many are starting to currently; meanwhile, a ‘tsunami wave’ of virus cases later this year might require a quick pivot back to crisis mode similar to what happened in March.”
“I expect to see a winding path play out for brands,” adds Jeremy of Planet Propaganda. “Where a constant adjustment to new realities is required. As a result, flexibility will be even more important than it’s been during the current pandemic response… Planning means exploration of all possible outcomes, not just the most likely or most appealing. Anyone strategising in these volatile times needs to avoid going all-in on any one plan or prediction, and instead be exceptionally open to a huge range of occurrences and approaches.”
Another aspect that crops up often is the opportunity for brands to use this period is to look deep internally, to their very core, and identify their core values - their brand purpose, if you will. It reveals itself as something important in the immediacy but more so in the long term. For want of a better phrase, it’s this type of inner-thinking, reinvention and re-evaluation of purpose that could be the key to navigating the path forward to the ‘new normal’.
“Crises are very insightful if you allow them to be,” says Harjot, relating the scenario to that of coming out of a bad relationship and, eventually, entering into a new one with a better understanding of yourself, your wants, needs and turn-offs - a new sense of gravity. “If you think about brands, they just have to act like human beings because they are in service of human beings,” he says. “Brands are just a sum of feelings and emotions so they also need to go out there with that new centre of gravity to re-assimilate. Now is a good time to spend really investigating and reaffirming what your centre of gravity is, whether that’s your mission, your core values, your purpose or meaningful role in people’s lives. We have to even more fundamentally attach ourselves to that and lead from there and not be distracted by something else. Now is the time to overly deliver and overly communicate the impact of your intentions.”
Harjot also points to a report by Mckinsey
that reveals only 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs believe their companies should ‘mainly focus on making profits and not be distracted by social goals’. “It’s really important now more than ever to deliver a sense of purpose across a wide range of issues that impact people and society,” he adds. “Does your meaningful role fully leverage your scale to benefit society? If it does then the impact will be extraordinary.”
“Don’t inflate the role you play in people’s lives, but also don’t overlook the real role you actually do,” adds Doug Kleeman, strategy director at Preacher. “That sweet spot can, and likely will be a hard space to find moving forward. While there’s a very obvious sensitivity that needs to be brought or added to all marketing, there’s also a not-so-obvious responsibility to still show up -- if not through ads and campaigns, then certainly through commitments and actions. Humanity goes a long way, especially when it’s tied to a real and refreshing personality..
In a bid to offer guidance to brands as they navigate the adjustment, peak and recovery phases of the crisis, Kansas City agency Barkley developed a series of open briefs. The most recent, ‘An open brief to invent your future now
’, uses workbook-like prompts to help brands find their voice now and focus on useful innovation that will allow them to emerge even stronger than they were before the crisis. What’s more, the agency has encouraged its clients to focus on five actions to better enable them to take the opportunities that exist at the moment, even if they’re difficult to spot. They are:
1. Make your consumers feel useful: Invite them to build the future with you.
2. Turn your employees into inventors: Give your employees the freedom to create.
3. Create a new consumer for life: Test, learn and acquire new believers.
4. Find a new partner in recovery: Band together with a like-minded partner.
5. Reinvent your brand in recovery: Don’t plan for business as usual. Plan to reinvent yourself.
“Through that lens, nearly 100% of our client brands have found ways to connect with their consumers in ways that build the kind of loyalty that serves as a bridge to recovery,” says Jason Parks, chief growth officer at the agency. “The more useful a brand could be during this time, the better suited it will be for the future. Even and especially if it meant significantly re-imagining the very products and services they were built around. Our thesis was this: The more brands focused on a stronger recovery - what you’re calling an exit strategy - the stronger they will emerge.”
“The key point is to stay closer to the communities,” adds Lavinia from Isobar Italy. “This isn’t a time for phony hopes, unreal storytelling, self-referential advertising. Be concrete, transparent, and share your doubts. In this phase, perfection is the enemy of good. Not time for a brief to be answered. A shared brainstorming posing the questions is the most useful approach to work with our clients… Brands should rethink how they could propose their necessity, their reason to exist. This transitional period is meant to transit to somewhere new.”
Jason adds that brands need a plan for each of the several ways that an eventual lock down lift could go. “Re-opening is not happening as quickly as some would like,” he says. “We’re seeing a new spectrum of consumer segments, from those who ‘can’t wait’ to the ‘supremely cautious’ to ‘vaccine or bust’. Brands need a plan to address each one of those segments. In the meantime, some brands will wait out the storm and miss the opportunity to emerge more relevant for a post-Covid world. We believe you shouldn’t just plan for recovery, that a brand can reinvent itself in recovery… We are already seeing many brands innovating, creating new ideas that will be relevant even as the pandemic lifts. The brands that internalise learnings from this time of crisis will be stronger and better for it in the long run.”
One thing that’s becoming apparent, though, is that whether a vaccine is found quickly and people can build up immunity or whether we’ll be living with Covid-19 for a long, long time yet, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a single, big, identifiable moment of street parties and celebration for brands.
“The eradication of a global pandemic doesn’t feel like a good ‘spike the football’ moment for marketers,” ponders Doug, in conclusion. “Of course there may be respectable ways to celebrate, commemorate, and come together as a society. But there’s still so much more to think about and do. Start by rethinking how and where you can actually show up for people. Implement new ways of taking care of your employees and those who helped get you through these trying times. Make your brand experience more transparent, less invasive and more enjoyable for your customers.
“And, if you do those things, and there’s still appetite for a brilliant brand campaign that can give us all the goosebumps, then, by all means, use your creativity to move us.”