Plan Like an Optimist
A view from Charles Vallance

Plan Like an Optimist

The VCCP chairman reflects on the importance of optimism now more of the crisis is likely behind us than ahead of us.

At last, the Great Interregnum may be entering its closing stages. We still have some way to go, but it feels like the finishing line is just about in sight.

If you're an optimist, you think we may be over the worst by February or March, if you're a pessimist you think August or September. Either way, we have passed an important psychological milestone. There is, in all likelihood, more of the crisis behind us than ahead of us.

The reason such a confident prediction can be made is, of course, due to the imminent arrival of mass vaccination. The news of the Pfizer breakthrough is game-changing, and the signs from AstraZeneca are also encouraging. The "immunology waiting game" is more or less over, opening the door to our return to some version of normal.

What kind of normal we return to has inevitably caused much debate. Will it be the same old normal, a new normal, a new normal-ish, a super normal, a different normal, a different new or, even, a new different? The slightly underwhelming answer to this question is none of the above. The normal we return to will, by definition, be normal. If we have to give it a fancy label, it will be the "normal normal". 

This doesn't mean it will be the same normal as before. Far from it. Much has changed. But our sense of this change will fade faster than we perhaps anticipate. Once mass vaccination has returned us to familiar patterns, the newness of our post-pandemic surroundings won't feel too remarkable for too long. 

Moreover, we have a tendency as an industry to overestimate rather than underestimate change. Our narrative bias understandably leans more towards disruption than continuity. And yet we know that the most successful change goes with the grain of existing belief rather than against it. The wiring of our brains means we like to feel we're ahead of the curve rather than behind it. Thus the success of intuitive, frictionless technologies. Their selling point is how little change they require of us. They feel natural and continuous, the seams of change smoothed out on our behalf.

So, as we face into the recovery, it's worth returning to the comment from Bill Bernbach that I quoted a few months ago; "A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive desire to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own". The greatest insights, the deepest human truths next year won't be new or original, they will be timeless and enduring. The ones that have stood the test of time. Like acts of generosity and neighbourliness, they may well be the ones we have learnt to re-discover. They may be counter-intuitive, like our desire for laughter, escape and silliness in serious times. They may simply be familiar themes in need of renewal and re-expression to give them heightened social and cultural relevance.

Building on the Bernbach quote, it's worth saying that the constancy of human nature is nearly always, with the possible exception of the fashion sector, echoed by the constancy of a brand's purpose and values. Pandemic or not, these are not things which should flip or flop. In fact, the greater the crisis, the more a brand's purpose should be intensified. Great brands offer the certainties of familiarity, trust, simplicity, performance, responsibility, quality and value. As such, they act as beacons of clarity in an often shoddy, noisy, unsettling world. When the storm rages, they should not just be themselves but, like Berocca, themselves on a really good day. 

So as we plan our way into 2021, I have a simple piece of advice. Plan like an optimist, invest like an optimist, behave like an optimist. Yes, it's possible that the moment for the full unleashing of optimism may be closer to the autumn than the spring. But do not let that deter you. The success stories of 2021 will be the brands who can look the future in the eye and tell us, from the bedrock of their purpose, that it will be a better place. If Covid throws a few last headwinds at us, so be it, we can always adapt our messaging. But let's not confuse messaging with purpose. What we say may have to vary, but why we say it never should.

Charles Vallance is founding partner and chairman at VCCP @TheBrandedGent.

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