It's been interesting how quickly so many theories emerged on how COVID-19 will change the business world forever. But if you reached dramatic conclusions and recommendations in the first month, as many did, you may have been rushing it a little.
In the old Indian folktale, six blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. The first confidently declares that an elephant is a large snake. Down the other end, his equally vision-impaired mate argues 'No, it's a just an old rope', whilst somewhere in-between a third insists that it's a tree.
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Eventually the Rajah kindly suggests that they each take the time to share perspectives in order to discover the truth.
This analogy would be even more appropriate if each blind man had a commercial interest in how this mystical creature was categorised. If the snake guy stood to somehow make a profit from an elephant being a new kind of snake, he'd be more likely to try and convince others that this was the case.
He might even go as far as preparing a presentation about it and sending it to his customers. Or posting an article about it on LinkedIn; "Snakes Now Rule the World - How everything you thought you knew has changed forever'.
Most predictions on how business will be changed by COVID-19 aren't actually new. They were sitting waiting to be rolled out again. In order to be provocative, most promote a dramatic shift towards a singular approach. And most are from those that would benefit from that happening. I've yet to see an article leading with 'What I was selling you before is now completely useless, very sorry about that.'
We've heard, again, that individually customised, timely and helpful communications will now take over as the most effective way to build brands. (Bet they don't.) Social Media will become the dominant marketing channel. (It won't.) And brands that promote their commitment to social purpose will leave others in their dust as a new woke generation shops unselfishly. (That'd be nice, but I'm afraid not.)
Few predict less extreme changes - or wonder if our costly neglect of basic, good old-fashioned marketing principles such as share of voice, branding and distinctiveness will finally be exposed.
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Inevitably the most useful theories will come from those with a more holistic view, considering a wide range of case studies, and looking at events beyond the last few months. We're constantly reminded that this situation is 'unprecedented', but there have been disasters, there have been recessions, and there have been technological leaps.
The challenge of balancing short-term and long-term strategy remains all-important.
It also applies to how we learn. Of course, we need to try and understand what's happening now, but we also need to look further into history for useful lessons. And we may need to wait a little longer before we make any lasting changes to our marketing beliefs based on this one.
There is one large-scale experiment in progress that's particularly worth keeping an eye on. Procter & Gamble has doubled down on their brand marketing, increasing spend as they've done in recessions many times in their 180-year history.
While the way they execute has obviously changed over those years, many fundamental principles remain the same. Their sales were boosted as COVID-19 took off, but let's not evaluate P&G's approach too quickly. Shoppers have been stocking up on FMCG products. Let's wait and see how their brands fare once COVID-19 is under control, when we return to a normal. Or perhaps a 'new normal'?
In a year or so, it'll be interesting to see what people have concluded about the COVID-19 elephant, and whether it really did trample over everything we knew about marketing and advertising.
Who will stand by the predictions they made and the advice they gave in those first months?
- David (DT) Thomason is an experienced brand planner and advertising strategist.