Ours is a tale of two nations – the haves and the have lesses.
Of course, we have always been a profoundly unequal society. However, the crisis we have all endured has baked that inequality hard, as fortune has favoured the more fortunate and turned its back on those whose jobs depended on more than good broadband.
For the Zoom class, of which many of us are members, income stayed up and even increased. While outgoings collapsed, released from all manner of daily expenditure that usually found its way into the hands of Pret a Manger, train companies, petrol stations and what was called a social life. These are the haves and for the moment they have more.
For the have lesses, the picture has been very different. Those that work or once worked in lockdown sectors have seen jobs evaporate or endured their career and progress being put on hold. Keyworkers that shouldered the burden of the crisis have stayed in work but have enjoyed no decline in their outgoings and will experience no reward beyond the echo of our applause that has long fallen silent. The have lesses don’t just have less than the Zoom class they have less than before.
A study by University College London last year looked at the size and profile of these groups and the unsurprising truth is that the more likely you are to be male, well educated and white, the more likely you are to be in the nation of the haves. Even in the same family.
As a marketer, this is the only segmentation you should care about right now. Forget the rest, culture is moving too fast to pin anyone down into neat little groups of your own devising. The simple question you should be asking is whether you are brand for the haves or the have lesses? Or like many, whether you are a brand that must accommodate the different needs and desires of both?
In the short term, "have" brands may want to make hay while the sun shines. There is clearly a dividend to be had in harnessing a post-lockdown spending spree. But be cautious, this will be a short-lived jamboree, the money some people have burning in their pocket will soon be burnt.
And the truth is, though the experiences of these two groups have been very different over the past year, we are still one economy. The good fortune of those people that have been able to work from home is utterly dependent on the spending power of those that were never able to. As marketers, we more than most, should understand this dependence.
So, reality will begin to bite for everyone as the year unfolds. And brands need to be prepared for this and the recessionary consumer behaviours that we know will follow. Value will be back on the agenda, as it was after the financial crisis.
Overall, marketers will need to understand and deliver clear value positions for their brands. And not some nebulous equation about quality, service and price but a complete mastery of the value that they are offering and how this relates their competitors. We will need to be as adept at shaping and policing our value position as our brand positioning. And fluent in whether consumers see the value we offer as more for more (expensive but worth it like Waitrose), more for the same (a value leader like Morrisons), the same for less (a value driver like Aldi), or a less for less (like Farmfoods).
And when it comes to better serving the two defining segments of our time. The have lesses will need help. Help to maintain a standard of living in difficult circumstances and make ends meet. Alongside price they will also value flexibility, paying for only what they need and use and giving them back some control. In the US last year, Ford introduced a financing programme that lets people return a new car if they lost their job.
Whereas the haves will want greater certainty. As they move from month to month not knowing whether they will be saving or spending and with the spectre of inflation and interest rate rises stalking them for the first time in decades, they will want to fix outgoings and create a sense of certainty. Fixing mortgages might be high on their agenda.
These will be hugely challenging times for brands and the very different experiences and situations of those devastated by the crisis and those insulated from it are going to present difficulties for all of us. But value-driven periods of the marketing economy are also times of enormous innovation. Innovations in services, products, promotions and promises the best of which endure. After all Waitrose Essentials, Dine in for £10 from Marks & Spencer and Aldi’s "Like brands only cheaper" were all children of the last recession.
It is time to look beyond crude historical parallels that promise a roaring twenties and recognise the reality of most peoples’ lives. Rather than wishful thinking, we need to place the value our brands promise and value our brands are famous for, at the heart of our plans.
Richard Huntington is chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi