How Do You Plan Around a Pandemic?

We’re all adapting. Days and nights are starting to blend. Homeschooling is now a part of our 9-to-5. Loungewear is the new workwear. And ‘zoom-hangover’ is a thing. So much has changed about how, when, and where we work. But if I’m being honest, one of the most challenging aspects of this new reality is that as planners, we’re guiding clients on what they should be doing, when we’ve barely begun to process what it is that we’re feeling.

As a society, we are collectively processing feelings of denial, shock, disbelief, anxiety, grief, and (even if we’re ashamed to admit it) bouts of boredom. These emotions are not being experienced in a linear fashion, we are in fact on a journey. A journey towards an entirely new normal. As strategic partners to our clients, our job is to appropriately and meaningfully navigate these mass cultural shifts taking place every single day.

Of the few frameworks out there that attempt to capture and codify these stages, I’ve found The Pandemic Stages Journey by behavioral insights practice Canvas8 to be the most useful to brands. They have used historical models of past crises to craft a structure that plots not just consumer sentiment and behavior, but the corresponding tone, mode of operating, and leadership style, that people seek in those moments.

Let's go.

Stage 1, Denial.

This is where we were a few weeks ago as a nation – walking the precarious line between downplay and panic. We had an overabundance of information, a good proportion of it false and misleading. Which is why our ask of brands was simple. Be clear and communicative, and proactively offer up solutions for your patrons, e.g. adjusted hours of operation, pick-up and delivery solutions, mobile and web solutions, and any other social-distancing response initiatives.

Next is Stage 2, Anxiety.

This is the phase we sit squarely in today so I’m going to spend a bit more time here. The situation has escalated and feels very close and very real. Every day, more cases and deaths are announced and there seems to be no shortage of data visualizations and trend projections to dial-up that growing sense of dread. As seen in customer centricity firm Gongos’ Coronavirus Sentiment Tracker, consumer levels of concern continue to grow, and people are reporting heightened levels of anxiety and fear.

In this stage, we’re looking for brands to show solidarity and generosity, or simply put – Be Helpful. Some themes here are:

  • “Innovate for Good” – Companies like LVMH, Dyson, and most recently, Under Armour have shown how they are genuinely increasing access to life-saving resources through the production of hand sanitizer, ventilators, and no-sew masks respectively.
  • “Support us all, by supporting the frontline” – Companies like Uber (via UberEats), Airbnb and Unilever are stripping the price tag off a portion of their offerings to take a burden off healthcare workers and first responders in a variety of ways.
  • “Cultivating community and connectedness” - Brands like Chipotle and Twitch (via Stream Aid 2020) are using the lockdown as an opportunity to rally their own communities around common themes of togetherness, and charitable giving.
  • “Messages of solidarity” – These are messages of hope and inspiration, exemplified by the likes of Nike and Guinness. These tend to be most impactful when they’re playing the role of PSA disseminators, encouraging people to stay in, or pay it forward, rather than empty signals of solidarity.

Stage 3 will be next - Adjustment.

Here, the curve is flattening as intended and we will have begun to adapt to changing circumstances. We will start to not just miss, but crave normality. We will have grown accustomed to life indoors and maintaining relationships virtually but will crave some change and interest around us. In this phase, we will likely turn to brands to innovate around our new realities, entertain, and engage us. We might begin to see some levity in messaging here, as content and technologies serve the role of a much-needed escape. The examples below are ones of brands starting to already play in this area.

  • “Remote Upskilling” - These brands are trying to support people trying to navigate their new realities, while also sustaining their self-improvement goals: Linkedin Learning offering professional development content free of charge, Peleton’s free 90-day app trial, and the Metropolitans nightly live shows.
  • “Quarantine, but Fashun” – Brands like Behr and West Elm are creating Zoom backgrounds to class-up your quarantine. Because your coworkers don’t really need to know you’re taking this call from your kid’s fabulous unicorn-themed room. This approach may seem overly light and silly, but it is certainly a solidarity-booster in its own right.

Stage 4 is all about Re-evaluation.

Here, we’re over the bell curve and life begins to return to normal. But we’re grieving the loss of loved ones, and the collective trauma within our communities and circles is still fresh in our minds. As panic subsides, we will enter a mode of reflection and recovery. We should see a slight rebound in consumption habits. Businesses will need to adapt fast to our changing values and sensibilities, and offer up hope and regeneration, through both words and action.

And finally Stage 5. The New Normal.

We’re post-crisis. We’ve made choices between the behaviors from the past that we will fall back into and the new ones from this disruption that we’re going to sustain. What will our shifted priorities look like? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that it takes only 66 days for a habit to form, and we’ll be well past that window and then some.

All we can do is plan for change.

It’s important to note that we may know the general cadence of stages, but we certainly don’t know the calendar. A particular phase could span a few weeks to a few months, and there is little geographic consistency in how this epidemic is charting its path.

As marketing teams around the country grapple with questions like - should we pull, pause, or push media currently in flight? Should we say something, or stay quiet till we have something of substance to say? Should we retain our brand tone, or make big shifts as we plan for 2021? – I suggest revisiting the stages above. I also urge brands to revisit those well-crafted mission statements and brand purpose pieces of the past decade and start to put them to the test. We don’t know where things will end up six months from now, but we do know that companies will be remembered for how they responded – or didn’t, when it mattered the most.

Neeti Newaskar is a Group Strategy Director at Camp + King, recently recognized as AdAge Small Agency of the Year (Silver). She launched her career in Singapore, and has since traveled coast‑to‑coast working for independent agencies like Brunner Inc., Venables Bell & Partners, and Evolution Bureau.

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