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This is a once-a-century crisis – let’s not waste it

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Jacques Burger is founding partner and group executive of M&C Saatchi Abel South Africa. He has more than 20 years’ experience in leading communications agencies in southern Africa and Australia, including Ogilvy, The Campaign Palace Australia (WPP) and M&C Saatchi.

We have been given a unique opportunity to reflect, to think about the future, to value those things that have been lost in our mad material race to achieve. A renewed focus is being placed on family, friends, craft, quality, skill, service and on the experience – a journey into a lost past.

We are at that moment after the ship has hit the iceberg, but we are not yet running for the lifeboats. Everybody knows something bad has happened. We know more or less what it was, but not what will happen next, or how it will turn out. 

The world has never taken time out like this. 

This is the time to reflect. We are where we are. Make the most of it. Think of the future you would like to see. The past is not what it used to be.

I recently heard an interview with a lady celebrating her 70th wedding anniversary. She explained that her long and happy marriage was possible because she grew up in an era where nothing was disposable – if something was broken, you fixed it, instead of just replacing it. That felt important to me.

No doubt when this is over, there will be spontaneous expressions of release. We will get out, see people, braai with friends, drink something different, shop if we still have money, go out again, go a little mad.

More pertinent for brands and businesses is to consider the impact on consumer behaviour and spend. I know during a recession, money is not burnt, it just changes hands or pockets more slowly and gets spent differently. But where will it be and on what will we spend it?

Here is my list of what will be worth spending money on and why.

Time

The past weeks have given many of us more time than we’ve had in years. We are not spending hours in traffic or days on aeroplanes for meetings that could have been done on Microsoft Teams. I still work as hard as ever, but I suddenly found myself with just those extra two hours a day to spend with family, to do a morning workout, to meditate – and I love it!

A speaker at a conference on luxury once said that the one generation’s luxury becomes the next generation’s necessity. My sense is that time is going to become more a necessity than a luxury. Companies that can help people find time and keep it will be winners.

Connecting

Related perhaps to having more time and perhaps because of the need for social interaction, I’ve found myself connecting more often with friends and family. The absence of everyday contact with people at the workplace, or even the mall has brought home the value of being close and in touch with those we love and whose conversations we truly value.

This timeout has taught us how hardwired our need to connect with other humans is. My sense is that we will invest a lot more in family holidays, dinners with friends, special memories and experiences. I think these will be more meaningful in nature, rather than extravagant. 

Myself

We are now doing everything that we know we need to do and we know is good for us: eat our veggies, exercise, take our vitamins, wash our hands often. 

The pandemic has just put a slightly sharper focus on it, like that you could actually die if you didn’t do it. Vitamins, yoga mats, meditation apps, cold-pressed veggie juice – I have no doubt that these will be attracting a large share of wallet going forward.

Tech

Lockdown might be hard, but without technology, it would have been near impossible. We have become familiar with new tech platforms, our digital tools. We can do more on them than we had thought possible – even singing lessons. But just because you can have a virtual birthday party does not mean you should!

Many of us moved rapidly from digital immigrants to natives, adopting and adapting to new tech at a prodigious rate. Digital solutions will become an even bigger part of our lives, in business and to support our other ambitions around more time and more connections.

Others (not myself)

Despite the fact that this virus does not care for status or standing in society, vast inequalities in our society and the vulnerable position of the poor and elderly have again been highlighted by this event.

Speaking of vulnerability, we’ve seen nature thrive as the devastating interventions of the human race take a step back. The images of fish in clean canals in Venice cannot be deleted from our minds. Unfortunately, neither can the images of overcrowded hospitals and bodies piled on the floor.

The latter images made me pause and ponder. I believe and truly, deeply hope with all my heart that the world will become a more caring, considerate and compassionate place. A society where we could expect a much greater push for higher levels of equality, for the rich sharing more with the poor, for us as humans sharing this precious planet with all its other inhabitants in a more considerate way.

I want, in essence, a more inclusive world supported by a sharing economy. This is a powerful opportunity for businesses and brands to play a meaningful role in making the world a better place.

Space

Whether confined to one room or a 10-bedroom villa, lockdown has given us an appreciation for space like never before – room to move, to play, to run – something that we suddenly realise we value more than we could ever have imagined.

When this is all over, I suspect that this new appreciation for space and the ability to move freely will remain, but the challenge will be how to balance the freedom of movement with the comfort of feeling safe.

Local

And speaking of the freedom of movement, I also suspect that this period has taught us that the grass isn’t greener on the other side. The way our government has handled this crisis compared to many other so-called first-world countries might see fewer people packing for Perth. And perhaps thinking Churchhaven rather than Corfu for their next holiday.

As this confinement forces a focus on our local communities and the people closest to us, it should also focus our support. We could be buying from the local independent grocer, supporting the eatery down the road, or checking into the B&B a short drive away rather than the more expensive, not-so-good place a jetlagged 14-hour flight away.

Quality and craft

At the top of my story, I talked about an era where you fixed things instead of replacing them. I think we may return to that era. The past few weeks have taught us that we need a whole lot less and the global recession on our doorstep may give it to us in abundance!

I believe that part of the reset we are experiencing should bring back our appreciation for quality and craft, for that which delivers real joy and timeless appreciation versus the fleeting moment of a superficial fancy.

Do you need 20 pairs of shoes when one beautiful, quality pair will do? Perhaps your dining room table should last two generations, not two seasons.

When we realise that less can be a decision, a choice, we will be able to Marie Kondo our entire lives and move into a world where we will have so much more, because we have less.

This might not be what businesses want to hear right now. It might not suit the volume strategies, the quick turnarounds and here-today-gone-tomorrow product life-cycles, but it could be an incredible opportunity for a renewed focus on craft, on quality, on skill, on service and on the experience.

Perhaps I stand alone in my belief that these shifts will happen and change the way people spend their time and their money. Perhaps everything will go back to normal if one can call it that.

But it would be a terrible waste of a crisis if we cannot create a world where we have more time, more space, more quality, more connections, more local, more for others. Wouldn’t that be a magical outcome for our businesses, our brands, our planet and ourselves? DM

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