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How to pivot in a pandemic

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

I had the chance to catch up with a friend and former colleague this week and we talked about all the ways our lives have changed since the beginning of the year. So many many ways. We also talked about the opportunity the pandemic has created to reassess what we need to give our lives purpose, which of the practices of our pre-pandemic lives had become shackles and which still serve us. 

For my friend, nearly every aspect of her life and business has been altered by the pandemic — she worked in an industry that operated on face-to-face contact, hosted large events for a living, and lived much of her life on the road and in the air. Now staying at home, spending more time with her partner and with the ability to contribute her time and talents in support of causes that matter to her, she questions whether she could ever return to the “way things were.” Especially as she acknowledges how unhealthy her pre-pandemic life had become, fueled by as it was by the never-ending hustle, the feeling that her self worth was inextricably tied to her personal productivity. Taking a pause at this moment might actually have been the very thing she needed, but wasn’t willing to accept until now. 

Whatever your pandemic story, I think on some level we can all relate to this. 

The whole world is being called to reckon with its failures and reassess its priorities. The pandemic has exposed the glaring gaps and massive inequities in our education system and exacerbated the widening divide between rich and poor. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement is forcing us to lean into our discomfort to address and eliminate systemic racism. The climate crisis will no longer be ignored. Consumers are too savvy to accept or endorse companies that carry on as before without acknowledging these changes in the context. And that acknowledgement needs to be backed up with meaningful action. 

So how do we do it? 

Whether you are planning a personal pivot or trying to figure out how your business needs to change to adapt to the changing environment, you must start with an understanding of your genuine purpose. What are you uniquely positioned to offer that your consumer uniquely desires? Most brands already know this, though not all are acting on it consistently and most do not have purpose woven into every aspect of their brand, marketing and operations. If you’re not sure of your purpose, it helps to go back to your origin story. Why does your brand or business exist? Who brought it into being and what problem were they trying to solve? The most authentic brands are the ones that carry this initial motivation forward as the defining principle in everything they do.

Now look at the world around you. What’s changed? And how can you change with it in ways that are authentic to your purpose? This is the exercise I take my students through in my International Marketing class, giving them real world examples and case studies to practice evaluating changes in context and their implications on the marketing mix. To understand the changing context, you should look at your industry, your company, your supply chain, your competition and — most importantly — your consumer. Every potential pivot should be evaluated on the same set of criteria: is this true to who I am? does this help me better deliver on what my consumer desires? does this help me adapt to the changing context? and does this contribute to the social good in ways that validate my purpose? Pivoting does not mean turning away from your purpose — instead we should be leaning into it.

Without purpose deeply rooted at its center, transformation will be nothing more than cosmetic. 

And don’t just take my word for it, countless other marketers have been joining this chorus of late, adding to the arguments and encouragements to live your brand purpose “with dignity and integrity.” My good friend Tia (who is also one of the smartest and most purpose-led marketers I know) recently participated in a panel discussion on this very topic, in which all agreed that “there’s a consumer need for brands to show up and do the right thing.” And that there’s a real difference between doing something versus saying something. And consumers can spot the difference more easily than ever.

Below is a list of links to articles I’ve read over the last few weeks that have been helping me make sense of things. Whether or not you are navigating a pivot, I hope that they provoke thought, spark inspiration or simply give you hope for the future that lies beyond the pandemic.

  • If you’re looking for examples of the Bold Pivots some companies are making in response to the pandemic, climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement you can find a really well-researched catalog here. Some pretty inspirational stuff from some pretty big and well-established companies.

  • Still, it’s hard to know how to pivot when the future’s so unclear. Here are some hypotheses about what the post-pandemic future might look like. And some links to articles that explore the ways that the pandemic has changed consumer attitudes and behavior — and the changes that might stick.

  • As much as the pandemic has changed the world and how we operate in it, some argue that the pandemic isn’t actually changing everything, but simply speeding up changes that were already underway.

  • A major impediment to our ability to effectively pivot is the lack of clear and conclusive information about the pandemic, what the “new normal” might look like or how long we will remain in this state of limbo. I love McSweeney’s and I love Dave Eggers and I really loved this, which so perfectly summarizes our collective confusion at the moment. I laughed/cried all the way through. 

  • I personally have been spending a lot more time reading and processing all the news bombarding me on the daily, but what of the rest of you working stiffs, forced to snack on headlines at bedtimes or on bathroom breaks? As the world around us changes so rapidly, how much new information can we reasonably take in each day?

  • The pandemic is a perfect petri dish for the cognitive dissonance that lead us into risky behaviors — something we are all starting to experience as even the most stalwart social distancers among us slowly (but surely) relax our distancing standards. 

  • On the topic of changing behaviors, is it possible that quarantine could repair the damage Hustle Culture has done to our brains? As the author of this article posits, “innovation — trivial or profound — tends to happen when people are bored.” Could our capacity for associative thought serve us even better now? Can COVID help us reconcile our Victorian-era belief in personal industry with the generative power of idleness? Time (and many of us will have a lot of it in the coming year) will surely tell. Maybe in the meantime, we can try living a life less urgent.

Finally, I hope no one needs this encouragement, but if you only change one thing in the pandemic, please let it be that you wear a mask when you go out. The science is real. This is not a hoax. Masks don’t just protect you, they protect everyone around you. If you’ve hesitated because you’re not sure which kind to get, here’s a handy guide to choosing the mask that’s right for you. And remember, a mask only works if you wear it.

Until next month. 

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