april 09, 2020
50 min read
What should brands be doing in the time of COVID-19?
This is Unseen Unknown, I’m Jasmine Bina. In today’s house episode, Jean-Louis and I are going to be talking about brand strategy in the time of coronavirus. Right now as we’re recording this, we are four weeks into self isolation and quarantine. It’s been a really crazy four weeks and everything is changing by the day. But it’s important that we have this discussion because there are companies out there right now that have no idea what to do. And I think we’re at a point where we have some idea about what’s around the corner and what we should be doing about it.
It’s hard to talk about brand strategy and culture without talking about the future. And it’s hard to talk about the future without making some predictions. So we’re going to rest this discussion on one big prediction, and that is that the quarantine is going to last longer than four months. This conversation is just as much about understanding where things are going as it is about figuring out how we navigate today.
We’ve given this some thought, we don’t want to be over optimistic, but we don’t want to fear monger either. It’s just important that we explore these ideas because they need to be explored and we need to figure out our direction forward together. Let’s not talk about the basic stuff like how you should turn off your short-term promotions, maybe not do any new product launches or change your ad mix. Let’s consider all of those knowns that are at of baseline.
Let’s talk about some of the more complicated, morally complex questions around us and what a company needs to do to survive in these changing circumstances.
I want to start off this episode by painting a picture of where Jean-Louis and I are right now. We are sitting on our living room floor with all of our podcast equipment spread out. It is 12:15 in the morning. I’m watching my children sleep in our bedroom, on the baby monitor and we are surrounded by baby toys. And I think that this image is a really good encapsulation of how much our lives have changed in the last four weeks and what that means for business.
Or to put this another way when everything is so chaotic in the worlds, and not just the big outside world, but also our internal, private, smaller worlds, what are brands even supposed to be doing right now? Because everything is topsy-turvy. This is an interesting discussion because it’s a lot about how our relationships to different things are changing. And I think the first thing we should really talk about here is our relationship with the home, how our relationship with the home is changing.
For some of us, our living rooms are now daycares or classrooms for our children. Our bedrooms have become our offices. Our kitchens have become cafes where we’re constantly frequenting because we’re at home and what else is there to do? We’re moving furniture around, we’re putting stuff up on walls. Things that felt like they were temporary changes are becoming more permanent changes. And this is where I think this story starts. If we’re going to understand how brand strategy is changing in accordance with actual consumer lives, it does need to start in the home.
Yeah. I think what’s kind of fascinating when we talk about our relationship with the home is really our relationship with ourselves. Because what’s happening is we’re becoming a lot more self-reliant than we used to. For some of us, maybe cooking is a frontier that we never really pushed, but now we’re forced to, we don’t have a choice. Laundry, maybe you went to the laundry mat or the dry cleaners, and now you have to do it yourself. Even being a handyman at home when something’s broken, you can’t just ask someone to fix it, now you have to do it yourself.
And so I think we’re starting to see that the roles we play on our homes are changing and we’ve been forced to give ourselves permissions where we used to say, “Oh, just get a cleaner and they’ll take care of it.” Now it’s, there’s no backup, we have to do it ourselves. So we’re starting to maybe see ourselves a little differently and tell ourselves a different story, and that could last a long time. That’s a self-perception that really over the next month or maybe quite a few months is really going to start to become ingrained that actually maybe we’re capable of more than we thought.
I think what you’re talking about is self-reliance. This the weird thing about self-reliance, I feel like I’m constantly in this situation looking for contradictions, and I feel like I see one here. We have this belief that like, okay, we can do it, we can be self-reliant. We see all of our peers online, so many videos of people creating lesson plans for their kids or creating new recipes, or dare I say, baking bread, or everybody’s new office set up or Jesus, the workout videos, which I would be really, really happy to never see again.
I don’t need to see people doing yoga in their living rooms, but there’s this story above the surface about how, yeah, man, we’re getting by, we’re doing this, but you can’t deny that actually there’s a lot of friction in the home. Nothing is where it’s supposed to be physically. And we’re expected to relax where we work and work where we relax, which we already know is not a good practice and is not something that you can negotiate. And we are going to be stuck in this state of literal dis-ease for months on end.
And I always tell people, “There’s a brand opportunity when somebody is telling themselves a lie,” and this is a lie that we’re telling ourselves here. There’s an opportunity for brands to help people bridge the gap between who they perceive themselves as and who they actually are when it comes to the home space. I don’t think I’ve seen too many brands actually do this too well right now. I think we’re in a stage where a lot of brands are like giving you permission like you were describing.
Brands like Brella or other kind of childcare or parenting brands teaching you how to create play spaces for your kids, or a lot of professional brands and accounts out there helping people cope with how to create workspaces. I’ve seen so many email newsletters about how to create an itinerary for your day as if any family can fall in itinerary and how crazy the world is right now. But this is the beginning.
I think there will be brands that can come in and help us actually revise the story in our heads so that we don’t feel this disconnect between what we want to be and who we actually are.
Yeah. I think you bring up a great point that really we are faced with this huge challenge of renegotiating our home spaces. And obviously the immediate demand is to find balance. To find some level of workable compromise. I think at the end of the day, there’s a lot of compromise going on. Our homes are just not equipped to do all the things that they suddenly need to do. We spent maybe half of our week in our homes and aggregate and a good portion of that was asleep. So now, there’s a whole new function and so balances this huge demand. And you’re right over the next month or two, we’ll probably see a lot of content to service that.
I think what’s especially interesting here is that when we talk about yoga and working out, and these kinds of activities that we have to make space for, it’s always like, “Yeah, I could work out at home, but I’d much rather get a gym membership.” And so now, we want to follow and continue these habits of working out and taking care of ourselves and we’re having to figure out how to do it in our homes. And I wonder after this is all said and done, how this is going to impact these going back out into the world.
Are we all going to go back out and get gym memberships just like we did, or some of us are going to stay on our Peloton bikes and keep it going at home? Or are we going to renegotiate a lot of these seeming fundamentals, and our behaviors, and routines?
What do you think?
I think that we’re going to be a lot more intentional about how we act and behave afterwards. I think especially when it comes to food and maybe the services that we get. Because we’re going to feel more self-reliant, we’re going to feel that if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it when we need to do it. And so I think we’re going to maybe make more of going out to eat, and maybe the hope is that we do possibly fewer but better things. We go to fewer restaurants, but we make sure they really count.
We hire fewer handyman or service providers, but we make sure that that’s when we really need it because we can handle the rest. And with exercising, I think that maybe there’ll be a good portion that actually finds a manageable level of balance at working out at home, for example, so they’ll stay at home. And maybe you find that others will be much more intentional and look for possible trainers because they know exactly what they want to get out of it.
So I think my main assumption here is that we will be more specific and more directional about these behaviors when we come out of this. But I think that the real subtext is that this is just going to change the way we see ourselves and how we operate.
Something else that I was thinking about as we started to talk about this was the fact that we have old scripts in our head that are really hard to take apart, and I have a perfect example of this. And a lot of these scripts are in the home. I’ve been buying so much dish soap lately and I couldn’t understand why. I thought maybe it was because I was buying new brands and maybe the soap wasn’t as concentrated or effective. I thought maybe I was wasting it or the nanny was wasting it. Really, for weeks, I couldn’t understand why am I buying literally twice as much dish soap.
And it took a month to suddenly realize, of course I’m using that much more because we are cooking every meal at home. It’s so logical, but it’s a very new story that I couldn’t put two and two together. Another example of something that everybody can relate to is toilet paper. I think we’ve all collectively agreed that there is a shortage of toilet paper because people are crazy and they are panic-buying and hoarding.
You’d be hard pressed to find a different explanation, except guess what? There is a different explanation than is actually true and it’s not false like the hoarding story. Toilet paper actually has really fixed supply chains with really thin margins, so it’s hard to change the actual production of toilet paper. And the interesting thing is that there’s two kinds. There’s literally two industries within the industry. There’s consumer toilet paper and commercial toilet paper and they are wildly different.
Consumer and commercial don’t even come from the same mills. They aren’t shipped the same way, they aren’t packaged the same way. They aren’t consumed the same way. They aren’t even actually structurally the same. You can’t even put one on the actual role of the other. And what’s happening is, not that we’ve doubled our purchases of consumer toilet paper, it’s that all of our purchases on the industrial side, so when we use toilet paper in our offices, in Starbucks, in the public places that we frequent, all of that demand has shifted to the consumer side.
And because these supply chains are so fixed, we’re always going to be experiencing this shortage. I’ve seen countless articles with psychologists, and experts, and thinkers talking about all this is panic-buying and it’s all emotionally driven, but nobody stopped to explain that there is actually very, very logical market reason for this. And wow, that just shows you how blind we are to the actual truth and the realities of what we’re living. That’s what I think is most interesting about this pandemic.
And what we’re all experiencing right now is that we are so habituated to our old narratives, like how much dish soap I buy that it’s hard to overestimate how much of an impact that’s going to be honest and mentally as we start to deconstruct these beliefs about ourselves and our consumption.
I think there’s so much going on right now that we’ll only ever really come to some level of understanding from the benefit of hindsight. We’ll only really understand what’s going on after all of this has happened and we can really get a macro view. Because right now, all of our attention is focused inward and on ourselves. And I think what’s interesting about this is, we talk about toilet paper, but when you take a step back and you take a pause, you can look at it, but the whole point is that we’re not in our offices anymore.
And we’re being forced to take a step back and look at our work differently too, and I think that’s particularly interesting. We talk about how home is changing us. I think the way we look at work and our relationship to work is really going to shift. For a lot of people, they are realizing that they are not in a secure position as they thought they were. And they may even have a great amount of savings, but just their livelihood is much more ephemeral than they thought they were.
And so I think what’s really fascinating here is that sort of like what is the collective mindset around work and how is that going to change? How are we going to walk away from this? Because they’re talking about 30, 32% unemployment in this country, which is by a very significant margin, the highest it could ever be. I think the Dust Bowl Depression was 25% unemployment.
So now, people are having a real amount of time to pause, look back and think about their livelihoods. And my assumption out of this is we’re going to realize that actually what we really… We’re going to be much more intentional again about what we look for in our work. We’re going to look for purpose because we can’t… Even in industries that we thought were indestructible and couldn’t be moved, there’s still a level of insecurity.
And so we maybe can’t find security anywhere, but what we can find is purpose. And so I think that maybe in the beginning, we’re going to be rushing to refill our bank accounts and get a paycheck, but gradually we’re going to start looking for more meaning in our work.
This was a trend that we were seeing well before this even happened is the corporate world changed, and people’s identities changed, and we embraced work more and more as part of our identities. Then it became a stand in for more meaningful things and we weren’t starting to look for jobs with meaning. But I think we were looking for jobs with meaning that would tell us that we were valuable, that we meant something to the world.
I think after this, that meaningful change. We’re not looking for meaning that tells us we’re valuable. I think we’re going to be more looking for meaning that tells us that we are actually providing value. And that’s two different things. So far what we’ve described in terms of the change in the meaning of work and the change in our relationships to our homes, it sounds like this is accelerating the growing up of a generation.
I think you and I are generally talking about millennials and Gen Z, who will probably be the most impacted by this. I think as we talk, we’re going to see that really the big theme behind this pandemic and how it will affect business and culture is acceleration. Is going to accelerate a lot of behaviors that were at a tipping point, is going to accelerate a lot of technologies, a lot of organizational structures, not just within our companies, but within our societies and within our homes, and a lot of identities and roles in society as well.
Something that I also want to talk about when it comes to work is leadership. I think we’ve seen every week more and more leaders are coming to the surface and talking publicly about what they’re dealing with and you see different leaders handling it differently, and I want to bring up something here. I think we all know that the rule of thumb right now is if you’re a brand, you have to show compassion and empathy for your user. That’s like a baseline.
But I think what a lot of people don’t understand is you really, really cannot show compassion and be empathetic unless you’re willing to also be vulnerable. Because compassion without vulnerability is really just grandstanding in my point of view. I saw two really good examples of this. The first really good example was Arne Sorenson, who is the CEO of Marriott, and he was one of the very, very first, I think, just two-and-a-half weeks ago, but it feels like a fricking lifetime ago, the very first to come and make a public statement.
I saw it on Twitter. And I’m going to tell you, honestly, I don’t think it was that good of a speech. I think I would have expected something else, but it was so well received and a thread through every piece of feedback about this great leader who was leading with such compassion and empathy. Actual words that people were using was the fact that he was very vulnerable in that talk. First of all, he opened his vulnerability. That was the first time a lot of people had seen him without hair because he’s been going through chemo.
And he talked about that upfront before he even addressed the issue. And he made it clear that his publicist told him it might not be a good idea, but he said that this is the way he wanted to do it, just be an authentic version of himself because he really needed to talk directly to his audience. He showed emotional vulnerability. He became teary in the talk. He was very honest about the fact that this business was on the verge of collapse in some ways.
This was lauded as a beacon of amazing excellent leadership in a time of crisis. And let’s not forget, we’re talking about Marriott. I think I have seen workers protesting Marriott in front of those hotels in maybe five or six cities in my lifetime.
This is a brand that is not known for good leadership, it’s not known for treating its employees well. It’s not known for being the first to deal with a crisis, but it was his vulnerability. It just shows you how much vulnerability can carry the effort in being compassionate. One other example that I thought was amazing. Not too many people know Robin Berzin, but she’s the founder of Parsley Health. Her personal brand, isn’t that big, but if you follow Parsley, you know who she is because she’s a big part of their front facing communications.
And she just had a baby, and I think she only had a baby like three months ago and on her personal Instagram, she said something that floored me. She posted a picture of herself holding her child and she said that her and her husband had made the difficult decision to start sleep training their baby, I think only at two months old. I might be wrong, don’t quote me on this even though I’m recording this podcast.
But let me tell you, to tell people that you are sleep training your child at such a young age, even though medically it’s fine is really opening yourself up to attack. Especially, if you are in functional medicine, which is all about parenting and child rearing with I think more leniency and compassion while we’re talking about it than more traditional forms of parenting. And she said she had to do it because she wasn’t sleeping for two months.
We’re in the middle of a crisis, she had to lead a team, she was no longer functional. And as a doctor, she’s expected to have all the answers. And I don’t want us to overlook the significance of what she did here because when she opened herself up to something so personal and so debated among people in that space, she was actually giving other women who were dealing with the struggle of child rearing in a quarantine, which is a struggle for real, by the way, permission to make compromises. That was a gesture of generosity.
The fact that she did that for other people, that was an amazing sign of leadership, but that was also an example of when you add vulnerability into the compassion and empathy equation, it becomes exponentially more powerful.
Yeah. When we talk about purpose-driven brands, most brands are trending towards this. And to your point out earlier about acceleration, this is rapidly accelerating brands that create purpose, especially the ones that are attracting talent. How do you differentiate between all of these brands if they’re all aligning around purpose? and really leadership is the only way that you can really differentiate. And now I think it’s so interesting that it’s really putting companies to the test.
There are those that have really strong leadership and are able to show that vulnerability, but really show what they care about by the way that they treat their employees in this, versus brands that just do it as lip service. They do it from marketing point. They won’t give their employees hazard pay, even though they’re really putting their employees at risk. Those are the companies that you really start to see who’s who as Warren Buffet puts it. When the tide goes out, you can see who’s been swimming naked.
That’s what’s happening right now is we’re really putting leadership to the test and I think we’re going to come out of this with a much deeper vocabulary to understand what good leadership is and what it looks like and be able to align ourselves towards it.
I do want to mention too that everybody is paying attention to leadership right now. I had interviews with some consumers for our clients over the last couple of weeks in flyover states. These are people that you would think if they come from more conservative backgrounds, they’re a little less concerned about like the activist employee story, a little more concerned about the market story. That’s a gross oversimplification and generalization.
But I will say, I was surprised with the kinds of things I was hearing from people in these states that were saying that they were paying close attention to what different airlines were doing as they laid off and furloughed their employees. What different major consumer brands were doing, what different major financial brands were doing. And these people were actually actively changing their brand allegiances based on how these different companies were responding to the crisis and the fact that they were downsizing.
So people are paying attention. And a smaller note, everything is political now. I don’t mean that people are voting with their dollars along party lines. That’s what’s interesting about this time period right now, it’s I think changed all of that. For example, Everlane had to lay off a bunch of employees and there was some kerfuffle about how it seemed like they were using these layoffs to mask the fact that they wanted to fire some employees that were trying to unionize.
And Bernie Sanders actually commented on that. I think he commented aggressively saying that these were really terrible practices by a company and Everlane was forced to respond or chose to respond by saying, “We’re suffering right now and this is something that we have to do.” And I think that could have been avoided if they were just a little more careful about the way that they had handled that communication and maybe addressed it with some sort of vulnerability and a bit more compassionate front.
Maybe that’s a bigger what if question, but the fact is people are watching closer than ever. What a leader does in communicating to its employees has become such an outward-facing thing now. This reminds me of something else. We have a client called NakedPoppy and they’re a clean beauty brands. They’re amazing like all the companies that we work with, but they have a founder, her name is Jaleh and she did something interesting last week. She showed vulnerability in her communications.
She sent an email out to her audience and she said, “Listen, I know we’re all suffering right now and I’m living through this pandemic just like you guys are, but I do know something about crisis.” And she went on to tell her story about dealing with cancer and what she learned from that experience, and imparting two people who wisdom on what they could expect, because we all want some sort of expectation of what’s coming up. It was done in a really sincere.
Let me tell you why this was so smart. One, she got a world of response from her users that immediately felt connected to her, not just people who had similar life experiences. Who hasn’t been touched by cancer even just by someone that you love? But because they responded to the fact that she had some honest, sincere insight, even though she’s never led people through a pandemic before.
But another great thing that it did was that it actually opened up the communication. So when people started responding, she was able to get a snapshot of where people’s minds were. I want to explain why that’s important. It’s the suddenness of all of this that’s insane. It’s the fact that this happened so quickly and that we’re coming to terms with it more and more every week. That just when you think you’ve wrapped your head around it, a new week comes and you think, damn, I was so naive. The mood changes every week.
For example, I think week one, we were all in shock and denial. There were lots of memes about social distances, but lots of optimism about connecting virtually. I know we got tons of texts from people. We were just starting to do FaceTime with friends, lots of messages, like, “Hey, hope you’re well.” That was week one. I think by the second week we had like reached the height of digital connection. It was really novel. We were really into apps like Houseparty and Zoom and Dialup.
These apps were all being touted as like social currency. All of a sudden on like influencers Instagram feeds, you would see snapshots of like the Houseparties or the Zoom parties that they were having with their friends. And then week three, which was last week or the week before, how are you’re calculating your days in quarantine. I think we all got less phone calls. I think there were less check-ins.
I think we had all gotten over the novelty of virtual connection. A lot less Instagram stories and I follow a lot of people. Chris D’Elia made a fantastic joke that I think said, “Oh, great. One influencer I don’t give a shit about is going live with another Instagram influencer I don’t give a shit about.” Which I think characterize the fact that people didn’t care anymore about that.
And we all went inward, became domestic like this was the birth of the sourdough boom to the point where we were having sourdough shortage… Excuse me, yeast shortages and flour shortages. For some reason, the week after that was all about playlist, every brand was pushing a playlist. I got a Glossier playlist. I think some of the streetwear brands I was following sent me a playlist. It was strange, playlist were like everywhere.
And now, me and you are recording this on a Monday… Tuesday in the morning technically. This is going to publish on Thursday and I guarantee, things are going to feel different by then too. So this is my point, you have to constantly be reading your audience. You can try doing it by social listening, you can watch users’ behaviors, but sometimes just putting something out there and seeing what you get back, like Jaleh did with NakedPoppy will help you read the room. And again, that’s important because the rooms mood is constantly changing way faster than you think.
Yeah. Now is probably the single best time ever to start experimenting with how you connect with your audience, how you build your audience and the format through which you’re having that conversation. You’ve got so many different people, so many celebrities and influencers trying out new things, brands too. You’ve got Jimmy Fallon reading kid’s books, you’ve got Questlove and D-Nice doing live DJ sets and a whole bunch of fitness influencers doing live classes.
We are starting to collectively create replacements and new formats to replace the needs and services that we used before and find comfort in these things. And so there’s a lot of new things going on and we’re very, very open to it right now because everything we’ve been doing has been disrupted. And so as a brand, you can really be forgiven for taking a risk and it not working out, so it’s a fantastic time for that.
But I think this is telling us a slightly deepest story about what’s happening here is that as we start to fulfill these needs online as opposed to offline, we start to find equivalence for events that were in-person that now we’re doing collectively through video. What’s happening is we’re starting to see the internet become more and more embedded into critical infrastructure. Like now there are huge incentives to do obviously education online, but medicine to government services.
A lot of things are going to start to move online and become part of that critical infrastructure. There’s a lot of things that’s going to change with that, but one of the first things is that it’s going to change the policy conversation about the internet. It’s going to start to be given a lot more rights and we’re probably going to see a lot of disruption with the major internet service providers as it becomes recontextualized. If access to critical infrastructure like medicine and education is prerequisite on internet, then accessibility is going to be something that the government is really going to have to mandate.
But I think what’s really telling about the shift towards the operating system of our daily lives being online is that it really creates a phenomenal incentive for automation. Like if you imagine all of these services go online, suddenly there’s all this new surface area that can be automated. So, scheduling and logistics, setting up appointments, billing, all of these things that there used to someone in front of a desk, they can do online.
You’re going to have a lot of doctors and other services that can be slightly improved. If you can imagine a doctor with a bit of AI can maybe boost their efficiency by 10, maybe 20%. You’re not replacing the job, you’re just making them slightly more efficient. Maybe you’re just saving them time, maybe you helping suggest diagnosis that can speed up their workflow. The point is that if you can make them 20% more efficient in theory, you would get rid of 20% of the jobs.
Now, with doctors, it’s not going to happen because there’s a huge demand that isn’t already being met. Then other fields like lawyers and other areas where there isn’t such kind of static demand, we may find the automation here is going to really start to kick in. And so what coronavirus may be when we look back is the very beginning of the automation curve really turning and really starting to be something that’s going to absorb a lot of jobs.
And so we’re going to see that companies are really going to have to understand their value and probably streamline a lot of things that are outside of that.
I have a feeling we’re going to look back at the coronavirus, this period, and we’re going to see it as the birthing point for a lot of huge cultural shifts. And one of them will be automation, coronavirus might be when a lot of new paradigms, and norms, and culture shifting advancements were actually set into motion.
Yeah. And let’s not forget too that a recession is the best time to do this. There’s no downside, no bad PR for automating because all the incentives are pointing in that direction. You can really cut a lot of corners with these things. Now is the time, and so you won’t feel it, but then suddenly afterwards, there’ll just be this lingering bottom line where the unemployment won’t quite get back as fast and we’ll start to see, and this will gradually accelerate. But this right now, this is the turning point.
Obviously if we weren’t already aware, a great deal of uncertainty in the market. And what you were saying before, which I want to summarize again here, but you were saying it at the top of the discussion was, we’re going through a great deal of change right now. But once we leave this period and we start a period of healing, there will be just as much change during that time as well.
Yeah. And we’ll only realize the change that we’ve already gone through then. We’ll only realize when we look back that, wow, this was the time when everything started going online. There’s suddenly all of these government services, all of these companies services suddenly by merit of going online had access to so many more automation tools. This is when we’re making that transition.
While all of this is happening in industry, at the same time, this is something you and I have discussed, the consumer… As industry is basically I think, ramping up and accelerating into the digital realm, especially like the laggards like government like you said. While all of that is going up, the consumer is literally free falling down to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. So we definitely had reached self-actualization in a lot of ways, and now we’re back down to basic survival needs again.
Yeah. We’re at safety needs, not quite at physiological needs, although we’re getting scarily close to that. But definitely brands that played the esteem playbook like Supreme, AWAY, Louis Vuitton, even S’well bottles. Those brands are not relevant anymore. When I’m worried about getting enough toilet paper, I couldn’t care less about those things. Definitely we’ve changed paradigm, and now we’re looking for safety, we’re looking for stability. And a lot of that is expressed through looking for comfort.
So the types of content we consume, the types of content that we’re creating on social media. TikTok especially in China has been inundated with comedy content and people making other people laugh. And it’s a collective coping mechanism, but definitely the ways and the types of things we’re consuming. I would expect that if the probably nostalgia is going to be something we’re going to be looking for, because for a lot of people, nostalgia represents a lot of safety, security, and comfort.
And there was already a lot of nostalgia in our culture as it was. Look at like fashion and all of the retro designs. In fact, like you see licensed bands tees from like the ’60s and ’70s everywhere on every girl that goes to Coachella, she’s wearing a tee with The Doors or The Grateful Dead on it, even though I don’t know that she fully understands what she’s wearing. But the fact that stranger things literally grips a huge audience of viewers because it delivered that nostalgic promise, nostalgia in design, in funds, typography and colors, and a lot of DTC brands.
There’s a whole faction of DTC brands that were playing with nostalgia. We were already at a tipping point with nostalgia, but it seems like you’re saying we’re going to go super deep into it.
Given the needs that it fulfills in terms of comfort and that feeling of safety, there’s going to be an increased appetite for it for sure.
Okay. Another thing that I think I’ve noticed about the hierarchy in our really rapid fall to the bottom is that I’ve noticed it has revealed a lot of cultural lies. Another thing about Maslow’s Hierarchy is I feel as we’ve swiftly come to the bottom of the pyramid again, it’s revealed a lot of cultural lies that we’re coming to grips with. Just as an example, I’ve written about this in the past.
There was an app called Digit. I don’t know if it’s still around, but it was a savings app. So instead of actually having you save money, it had this algorithm that was siphoned off little amounts of money from your account every day based on what your spending was, so that you would save. And that way, you would feel like the responsible person that you thought you were without actually having to be a responsible person.
That’s just an example, but let’s talk about some of the gaps that I’m seeing, and I think a lot of times these gaps show up in language. This thing about calling doctors, nurses, and teachers, heroes is fascinating. I’m not the first person to talk about this, but calling these people heroes is green in some ways. It helps unify our society, but it’s actually also really destructive in other ways.
Think about it, when you call these people heroes, you really leave no room for them to feel fear. You don’t leave room for them to discuss how difficult the job is. And it makes it really easy to overlook that these are human beings that need more support than just a thank you, or a shout out, or a meme, or a sign out of a living room window. It doesn’t let them be weak, and I think that’s profoundly unfair.
There was a really telling example of this. There’s a woman named Dr. Rebecca Lawrence. I think she’s a psychologist, I’m not sure if she’s a psychologist or an actual medical doctor, but she went on Twitter recently and she posted something that went viral and I’m just going to read it like word for word. She said, “I’m going to say something unpopular. I wish I wasn’t a doctor, I wish I wasn’t terrified at what I may be asked to do. I wish I could self isolate. Sorry.”
She knew that this was going to be met with a lot of pushback and criticism, and it was. This went viral, and if you scroll through these comments, a lot of them are pretty negative. People are angry that she is weak. People are angry that she’s scared. And when you call people heroes, it perpetuates the myth that they’re not allowed to feel these things. Now, for teachers, it’s a little different. To call a teacher a hero is to erase the fact that she’s treated very unfairly in really unfavorable circumstances.
And it’s so disingenuous, even saying teachers are heroes, all these moms, all these celebrities who had to homeschool their kids for a week are now calling teachers heroes on Instagram and on Twitter. It’s disingenuous because we all know there’s no way in hell that these teachers are going to get paid more when we come out the other side of this. There’s no way they’re going to get more respect. There’s no way they’re going to get more support. Absolutely nothing will change.
It’s like a slap in the face and it’s such an interesting thing that you start to see these cracks more and more in times of crises. I think you see this with other expressions like strong black woman. It absolutely erases the suffering of those women. I think even a phrase like tiger mom, for example, even though that comes from someplace different, it was self-described because I think there was a book called Tiger Mom by an Asian-American woman who actually called herself that.
But also again, a racist or avoids the fact that motherhood, you have to be very vigilant if you want your child to be successful and happy in this world. And all that burden is placed on the mother. The mother is always the one that is responsible for the thriving of their child. And if their child isn’t thriving, then it’s her fault. And here’s what’s really happening, here’s what really matters here. The human instinct is always to reframe the ugly as something more palatable, but the longer this pandemic and social isolation lasts, I think the less and less we’re going to be able to actually do this and lie to ourselves about these things. And the mood is just going to keep shifting.
These phrases and images protect us from the carnage underneath all of it, and the unfairness, and the inequity, but they can only work for so long. And I wonder what’s going to happen when they start falling apart, when the word heroes, when people start to realize it’s and it doesn’t do what it used to do.
There was a great article in Politico about coronavirus and professor of political science Mark Lawrence Schrad had a great point here that maybe after all of this, what we may find is that our sense of patriotism may change. Often 9/11, the soldiers were the heroes, they went out and shut the enemy. And as he says, as he put it, “You can’t shoot a virus.” And what we may find is that actually patriotism becomes demilitarized and instead focuses on the service providers that really protect us and becomes less about the enemy and more about the collective.
And so we may change our identity around, patriotism may change a little bit, and we may see this through a different lens. And so I think maybe at a values level, these things will shift, but the problem is to really fix a lot of these challenges is a structural governmental issue. And that’s something that is going to be much harder to do, but I think at the end of this, there’s going to be a lot more tension about it because even now, there’s so many videos coming out about doctors in New York who were literally using trash bags to protect themselves. They’re risking their health and they have literally nothing medical to protect themselves.
And so there’s a lot going on here, and you’re right in the sense that we use the term hero, but very rapidly, I think our understanding is going to change and we’re really going to start seeing this as a tragedy almost, that these people are risking a lot absolutely not protected. And maybe we value them culturally as heroes, but we certainly don’t treat them that way.
What you’re saying right now reminds me of something when we were doing work with a media brand that served veterans. It was a content brand for veterans. We found in our research that really veterans were allowed to occupy three identities and they could never be more than one at a time. And it was the hero, the villain or the victim. And we ascribe these really limiting roles to people. And there are roles that really only come into play in times of crisis like this.
It reminds me also of something that I think a lot of people may have read, which was David Brooks’ opinion piece in the New York Times recently. The title had something to do with the word plague, but I think he was describing the pandemic like a plague. But he was saying that what’s interesting about the coronavirus is that it’s really hit us where we’re the most vulnerable and in a very surgical way, exactly where we’re the most vulnerable.
We’re divided as a nation, but now this pandemic makes us even more separate from one another. We define ourselves by our careers, but now those careers have basically evaporated overnight. We’re what, he calls morally inarticulate, which is an awesome phrase, but now we have to actually have very difficult moral discussions. And that’s what these stories around being a hero and phrases around our identities, those are also part of the moral discussions that are difficult to have that we’re probably going to have to start having soon.
Right now, we’re at a point now, especially in New York where doctors are having to be given impossible situations. You have two patients that are both critical that you have to choose who gets the ventilator. That is happening more, and more, and more. Can you imagine during a rush and there’s so much going on, you’re exhausted. You’ve been working 14-hour shifts for weeks on end.
You’re worried about your own safety, you’re worried about the safety of your friends and then suddenly you’re liable for so many things because you’re in a situation where you’re having to triage in real time, multiple times a day. It’s an incredibly difficult situation and I think we’re going to have to start really seeing this differently because that’s a very, very complicated moral conversation that we’re by no way ready to have at a societal level, but we’re being forced to have it.
And the big question here, I think for people is, so how do we as individuals, how do we as brands solve this problem? I don’t know that it’s the role of brands to solve these things. I could see later on with brands that have like actual alignment in these areas where it’s true to their values and the actual product and DNA of the brand that they could start to have some of these discussions, but there’s a bigger point here. It’s the fact that everything you do right now is a signal, everything you do is politicized.
The fact that Everlane had to lay off, I think it was like 44 employees. Would have been a run of the mill thing, but the fact that they laid off a handful of employees that were also trying to unionize at that time, made this something that Bernie Sanders actually responded to. Bernie Sanders felt the need to say something about Everlane’s layoffs at a time where you would think any layoffs would be forgiven.
And it just shows you that nobody is going by unscathed. Everything you do is saying something about what you is it you believe in your values as a brand, and values have just become political. I just want to mention, there’s different ways for brands to approach these things. You can be a brand that does well, you could be like Zara that’s making scrubs or LVMH that’s making and distributing free hand sanitizers.
Now, I don’t think these are just like employees or ways to feel like they are part of the larger conversation. These are definitely sincere acts, but what’s interesting is the fact that they actually converted their operations to start producing these things. It’s interesting because I feel like it tells me that these companies aren’t just do gooders, but they see themselves as custodians of the people. They actually are here to protect the wellbeing of the people.
And if you hear that, that sounds like how you would describe a government. It’s an example of how governments and brands, the line is really blurring. It’s a really elevated position for these brands and it works. I think those brands did it really, really well. I think other brands like Ritual giving away three free months of vitamins to healthcare workers, that was great. You see a lot of Elliott clothing brands have pivoted their operations to making face masks.
But even still now, face masks are selling out everywhere, but a lot of them are only selling them in a buy one, give one model, which I think is also great. I think this is like the V1 of what it’s going to mean to do something as a brand during this pandemic. But I do want to talk about taking it a step further. I like what brands like Cameo are doing. And this is an interesting one so just hang on with me.
Cameo, if you don’t know who they are, it’s a platform where literally every celebrity, I’m not joking, every A list to Z list celebrity is on Cameo and you just pay a few bucks and ask them to create a video greeting on their smartphones for your friend’s birthday or for your anniversary. And it’s literally just you’re paying 10, 20, I don’t know what it is, but it’s a super cheap amount for like 15-second clip.
Like Gilbert Gottfried, the comedian is actually one of their top performing celebrities and he’s, I don’t know if you’d call him a D-lister, but he’s A-lister. He described making $4,500 in 30 minutes and he was making upwards of six figures a year just spending a fractional amount of his time making these videos. This is what Cameo is. It’s a really interesting marketplace that actually has been working.
And it’s been one of those breakup brands that you probably haven’t heard of if you’re outside of Silicon Valley, but they’re doing really, really well. What can they do? What’s their product? What they’ve decided to do is launch something called Cameo Cares, and it’s basically like a three-day virtual summit or a three-day virtual event where they’re going to be raising money with having all these D-listers come on and do things like give behind the scenes access, or talk live from their living rooms, or play music, do a comedy hour and do like an exercise session.
And what works here is the belief behind Cameo is that one person’s D-Lister is another person’s favorite celebrity in the world. And so if that’s their core value, giving people access to these favorite celebrities in kind of a very nostalgic way like you said, that feel good nostalgic way. These are celebrities from your childhood, celebrities from your past, they’re almost never current celebrities.
It feels like a new telephone, the modern telephone, although I don’t know, because it hasn’t happened yet, so I’m not sure what it’s going to feel like in terms of format. But it just shows you that they found what their brand was about and they aligned it with actions that would benefit people during this crisis in a very on-brand way. And I think that makes it super, super effective.
It lets them do something, Jean, you were talking earlier about you’re experimenting with new tech platforms and new ways of communicating? They’re able to do that and I think this was smart, this was thoughtful. Because people want this connection right now. They want human and imperfect. And once there’s human and imperfect, more than a D-list celebrity on your phone.
These are some examples I just wanted to make sure we got out there of brands that are thinking of creative ways of not being opportunistic, not using this as a way to tout themselves, but using their resources in the best possible way. Because sending an email to people that says, “Hey, we’re here for you,” is not the best use of your resources. But these examples are good uses of resources.
Yeah, that’s a great point. If Cameo is about nostalgia and that kind of connection, then I think we have to talk about escapism, and the best place to look at that is online gaming. Online gaming is really spiked because of the situation. I don’t think people really appreciate how significant this is. If you look at this younger Gen Z generation who are in the late teenage years. Now is when they’re really forming the normative social behaviors and what the defacto is for their generation.
Online gaming is a huge part of this, more and more. And it’s a very social activity too. I think nowadays, something like 70% of gaming is considered like a social activity with more than one friend. So it’s really like, this is the way that that generation is socializing, and we may not feel it now, but there are repercussions of this. And being forced to almost exclusively socialize in these contexts, that’s going to have a ripple effect for that generation.
And I think that maybe in five, 10 years when Gen Z, suddenly the younger end of Gen Z comes into that purchasing power, brands are going to have to meet them in new places and a new norms. I don’t think they can underestimate the significance of difference between Millennials and Gen Z. That generational change is happening more and more rapid. Cameo may work really, really well for a millennial audience, but I wonder if for a Gen Z audience they’re looking for a different kind of relationship and a different kind of dialogue.
It may be much more peer to peer and much more maybe tribal. I don’t think we really know what that looks like, but when we’re talking about brand and the repercussions of the coronavirus, I don’t think we can underestimate the… It’s having an effect to consumers right now, but there’s a bracket of people who it’s going to be much more foundational and how it impacts them.
Again, we’re talking about acceleration. This is going to accelerate the divergence between two generations, the Millennial generation and Gen Z faster than it would have happened otherwise. It’s funny, what you’re describing, I think when people ask me how we’re doing, when we get texts from friends, just checking in on us, “Hey, what’s up? How are you guys holding up in there?” I tell people that I’ve been questioning the nature of my life decisions and you’ve been playing grand theft auto. That’s how we’ve been coping.
And I think a lot of couples and other people can also speak to the fact that there are stages to this and we’re all going through different stages. So it is 1:15 in the morning and I think this would be a good time to wrap this up with our personal segment at the end. I actually just came up with a question for you and I think we can both answer it. Let’s end positively. What has been your most positive memory so far or experience in our new reality?
I can’t think of a specific memory off the top of my head. I think there’s a lot of shifts in our routines that have actually been really nice, particularly spending more time with the kids. But I think to me, I’ve noticed this realization of just how collectively really started paying attention to how much we value our communities and how much we value our friends. It’s become very, very much aware of how much that connection means to us because it’s been withheld from us.
And so it’s been nice to see, I think with immediate friends of mine, but I think just in the news as well. We’re starting to realize just how important it is. And I hope that maybe at the other end of this that we have a renewed sense of value in community. And that might actually be a very positive thing, when you have a unifying enemy you have something you can all rally together against and there’s a collectivity to that. And that actually might be a really quite valuable.
That’s me. What about you? What’s a good memory out of all of this?
I think like you, maybe I want to revise the question, it’s not so much a memory, but it’s more like a realization. I was on a call with somebody last week and I was late to the call and I apologized, and she said, “Oh, it’s okay. There’s no sorry in a quarantine.” And I thought, wow, I’m going to use that. I use it a lot to forgive myself for a lot of little things that I just can’t control because there’s so little that we can control in our lives right now.
Whether it’s work, or family, or home, or just keeping good mental hygiene, or sticking to your routines, all those things that take so much willpower during the day. But I like telling other people that. I’ve mentioned that to a few people now and people love hearing it. It’s a gift. It’s a really strong message that I think people actually package in their brains and pull out later. It’s like a tool that people have used.
It’s like a device or a vehicle, and that’s what I want to give to people listening. There are no sorries in a quarantine. You pull that out when you need it and you use it as often as you need to. It’s a magical phrase, it can only do good things.
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Interesting Links & More Reading
- The Moral Meaning of the Plague (New York Times)
- Is This the End of Influencing as We Knew It? (Vanity Fair)
- Health care workers aren’t just “heroes.” We’re also scared and exposed (Vox)
- What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage (Marker)
- ‘You have to be hypersensitive’: As the coronavirus spreads, standard PR strategies are falling flat (Glossy)
- Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How (Politico)