By Nick Dormon, Managing Director of independent brand and innovation design agency Echo
When coronavirus is eventually “over”, it will be far from business as usual. The outbreak has caused global disruption not only to our health, but to our economies, lifestyles and societies too. At the same time, the natural world has been able to take a deep breath. Pollution has plummeted, waterways have cleared, and nature has been quick to reclaim urban spaces. The human cost has been unimaginable. And yet there are always positives to be found.
Consumers don’t want things to return to “normal”. They want to savour this new-found appreciation for nature and the intangible things in life that money can’t buy. The times of disposable, jet-setting consumerism will seem long-gone as we emerge on the other side of the virus. A consumerism based on consciousness and efficiency has developed quickly while in lockdown, one that puts the greater good above the needs of the individual.
We need to capture this zeitgeist and transform it into something that lasts. To ensure that we have collectively taken lessons from this pandemic, we must adapt current consumer attitudes into positive action that benefits our wellbeing, our relationships, our communities, and the world. An opportunity lies before us to develop the immense change brought about by coronavirus into positive, progressive and, ultimately, long-lasting change.
But how can we enforce social change of the kind that ensures positive adoption of behaviours that last?
From a brand innovation perspective, businesses have the unique potential to affect change through the power of storytelling. We have all had a taste of what the world could be like if only we cared for it more. I have so enjoyed the sound of birdsong around my London home, no longer drowned out by the constant drone of traffic and planes as people stay at home and nature has a chance to reset. Whilst we may not want to remember the boredom, worry, grief and pain of coronavirus, there are undeniably positives to be taken, and it does have wonderful stories and images.
The old saying “a picture says a thousand words” is supported by studies which reveal that images can have a more powerful impact on our behaviours than words. Images have the potential to provoke a profound and emotional response, influencing the way we think about and the react to certain situations. I believe this to be true in the era of coronavirus. Can we restrain ourselves from shooing away wildlife when we return outdoors, now we have seen compelling images of deer roaming the streets of Nara, Japan and Barcelona’s Wild Boar and Adelaide’s kangaroos? Can Venice better manage its boat traffic before the cruise ships return, emboldened by reports of dolphins in the canals? Actually, this last bit is fake news, but the fact that it has gone viral is further evidence to the power that these stories can have.
To protect the positive change coronavirus has brought to our natural world, we need to preserve the stories and images to keep them fresh in our minds. We need a ‘Blue Planet moment’ to share and remember these silver linings. David Attenborough and his camera crews need to be scouring the world’s cities for their next series right now. Brands should factor this into their marketing and messaging strategies, for the emotive power of storytelling is the first step towards capturing the zeitgeist and translating it into lasting behavioural change. This could be brand innovation’s finest hour.
Businesses that listen to their consumers and translate this zeitgeist in practical and tangible difference will be the ones with longevity. Only by recognising that consumers want to see long-term change and building this into brand strategies and business models can we hope to see real progress. Afterall, coronavirus has also affected consumer attitudes towards brands. Mere buzzwords prior to coronavirus, ‘brand purpose’ and ‘brand transparency’, now have a more divisive influence in determining brand loyalty. Trust has become a commodity that brands must sell, and to do this in a post-truth world that has seen people lose faith in everything – from corporates to politicians – will be hard. Only the brands that are open, honest and reactive to their consumers will last.
As we move forward, people will want to preserve the good that this crisis has done to the planet and our wellbeing, for lockdown has forced us all to confront some of our most damaging and unsustainable habits. Take Milan, for example. After the city went into lockdown and traffic came to a halt, the Milanese people had a glimpse of an alternative society that favoured sustainable transport over cars and buses. Quickly reallocating street space to cyclists and pedestrians, Milan demonstrated the power to respond to its people’s newfound desires and effect infrastructural change with immediate impact. Mexico City, New York, Seattle and London have implemented similar changes to their urban designs, with Sadiq Khan recently pledging a 10-fold increase in cycling across London.
It doesn’t stop there. Mayors across the globe are calling for a low-carbon, sustainable recovery from the crisis, embodied in the C40 group who are dedicated to translating the “new normal” into a green future. Aware of the deep social and economic inequalities that coronavirus has exposed, we are seeing governments at a macro level pledging to put equality and climate resilience at the forefront of their strategies.
Businesses are radically shifting too; in the UK, the Green New Deal business initiative is proposing a green response to the virus as the only tangible way forward. Corporate giants such as Lloyds Bank, Asda and Sky are promising to drive investment in low carbon innovation, infrastructure and industries, decarbonise the economy and prioritise climate goals as they transform their business strategies. Coronavirus has shifted the way we think about conservation and sustainability initiatives, and are already being built into corporate programmes and initiatives.
Whilst normality has been disrupted, we have glimpsed something better and new behaviours can become easily embedded. Is now not absolutely the right time to make significant improvements to our consumerist, jet-setting lifestyles? Could we, for example, move significantly and quickly to radically reduce single use plastics through expanded corporate initiatives, new legislation and bolstered recycling systems? An already accelerating desire for more sustainable products and services has been given a boost as we watch the world pause and nature begins to repair itself. It’s time for brand innovation to step in and transform this new-found appreciation into long-lasting change. Let’s ride on this wave before it peters out and we go back to our old ways. Let’s celebrate nature’s comeback and support it by changing the way we do things for the better, forever.