2020 vision: What the pandemic taught us about business

It used to be synonymous with clarity, and peak performance (as in the case of a pilot). But I wonder whether 2020 will now be shorthand for an unforeseen disaster?

As we come to what is hopefully the end of the pandemic phase (but not the virus itself of course), I’m reflecting on the way in which it was handled, what it tells us about humans (who are, after all, the subject matter with which the marketing profession is concerned), and how it will change the way business is done.

How it was handled and what that tells us

On any objective basis, half of the world got this wrong. The country that I know the most about (the UK) got it catastrophically wrong.

The pandemic was unforeseen but not unforeseeable. Pandemics have happened before. Our relationship with nature creates opportunities for viruses to shift species. But knowing that a risk exists and actually spending resources mitigating it are two different things.

I found it shocking to observe that the situation in China and then Italy in particular did not spur both the public and the authorities in the UK into clearer action.

Collectively, we are just not as rational as we think we are. That fascinates me and whilst it is a sad thing to accept, it’s better to progress from a point of understanding than to do the opposite.

Our tolerance for decision-making based on conflicts of interest is astounding and it holds back potential progress.

Most people believe things that are demonstrably untrue. An abundance of evidence shows this. It’s part of the reason that warehouses full of rotten PPE were allowed to happen when basic stock rotation would have cost close to zero in addition. And culture throws up things like British exceptionalism which is part of the reason that the UK believed itself to be better placed to fight the pandemic than it was.

The solution is for all organisations to carry out objective assessments of where they are and what is happening around them, and why. But binning our existing bias is a prerequisite.

What this means for marketing

I was in the fortunate position of carrying out primary market research for clients during 2020. Talking directly to customers about what they think never fails to provide illuminating insights.

It’s very clear to me that many people’s beliefs make them vulnerable to manipulation. I would never utilise this unfairly, but I can say for certain that the opportunity is there and it is being exploited by others.

On the other hand, I’m encouraged by the new markets that are being created for socially and environmentally beneficial business, but we have a long way to go. Opportunities abound in these areas.

I would never just tag words like ‘ethical’ onto products, because what is and is not ethical can be debated. And most people I have met who claimed to be ‘ethical’ have been capable of highly questionable practice.

What should businesses do?

2020 has demonstrated more clearly than before in my lifetime that business and society are inseparable. We have to look after our people. We have to generate profit in ways that are less harmful to others. (If your business model involves moneybags half-filled with tuna, then that will need to change). We have to have fairness as a non-negotiable.

But we have to be flexible.

I’m very lucky in that I run a business that was able to carry on serving clients. Some of my services went down in demand and some went up. Overall, I did OK.

What we should not do is throw everything away and believe that we should change direction completely. So many businesses found new ways of applying their specific abilities to changing customer needs in new ways. Restaurant meal kits and online fitness training are examples. But, crucially these things did not involve the suppliers stepping away from the things on which their brands were built.

I despaired at hearing brewers and pub landlords talking about pouring drink down the drain whilst drinking levels at home skyrocketed and an army of new delivery drivers was created.

You have to match demand with supply. The rest is just detail.

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