What can this crisis teach us about the future of creativity?

FCB Inferno’s chief creative officer Owen Lee offers his take on why the Covid-19 pandemic is proving the importance of community and the magic of mass communication.

Rather than being momentous, the truth is, living through history is hard. It throws everything we know up into the air. Normality is replaced by meetings featuring kids, dogs and domestic bickering. And home fitness regimes are uncomfortably close to the solace of the fridge. It all reminds us, that nothing is normal about this new normal.

But in between this, and the tragic scenes we are seeing on our TV screens, we are also seeing the very best of humanity. A communal spirit that demonstrates to us all that when it comes to the crunch, human beings collectively care for one another very deeply. Where we may well have expected selfishness, it seems it is selflessness that is winning through.

What does this mean for creativity?

Well, during dark times, we value creativity more than ever. We can see how much more demand there is for it by the soaring TV viewing figures and the huge demand for streaming services. But then there are the little acts of human creativity springing up all over the place, like a group of mums transforming their running group into a medicine delivery service or apps appearing to support local businesses.

Creativity is an innately human quality that only humans can appreciate in one another. It binds us together and in times of crisis we take great solace in it. Perhaps that’s why creative culture throughout the world has often thrived on hardship and uncertainty. It feels a safe bet to assume it will do so again now. I believe, during this crisis, we are already seeing cultural shifts that can give us a small insight into creativity’s future.

Hearth and herd

Let's consider the sheer scale of the upheaval to our day-to-day lives. On an unprecedented global scale, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us back into our homes. With this abrupt disruption, we have found that we are suddenly in the same boat as everyone else. For marketers and creatives, this raises an important question around the value of communicating en-masse to large communities, versus seeking out the individual.

On a day to day basis, we are seeing a return of the ’hearth’, where families gather together to share in experiences, most commonly stories, together. That may be streaming films and TV series, watching the news or anything else. But in a media world where consumption habits have become more and more fragmented for years, that's a significant change.

It's just one way in which the nature of the crisis we're facing is different to the various other ’historic’ events we have lived through in recent years, which have tended to be social and political. For the last few years this has seen us self-identify as part of a group of people that is opposed to another group of people, highlighting the differences between us. Coronavirus is different. Nobody is pro-coronavirus.

This time, we are all united against something that threatens every one of us. That has enormous implications for how we communicate to people, and the creativity that's needed to do so.

As psychologists have long identified, human beings are tribal. We want to subscribe to a unified, social goal. If a brand can find a story that unifies us, perhaps that is more powerful than the idiosyncrasies that divide us.

Smart guy, Aristotle

At the advent of democracy 3,000 years ago in Ancient Greece, Aristotle taught the importance of the art of rhetoric, or the ability to sway crowds. His lesson is still relevant today. Brands are democratic. The very concept of a ’brand’ is a shared ethos, or a shared set of values. The point of a brand narrative is to communicate those values to people via storytelling, and by marketing itself a brand is inviting the person to share in those values. The concept of community, of tribes, has always been present in marketing; it’s just that our era of micro-targeting has made it feel less so.

That’s not to say that targeting is in any way wrong. It’s important to target customers, it’s how we identify our markets and creatively speaking it’s empowering to recognise oneself as an individual, not just part of the herd. That won’t change, and the lessons we are learning from micro-targeting are as important as they've always been. But perhaps this crisis is highlighting the fact that they also shouldn’t obscure other forms of creative communication.

Marketers and psychologists have long identified the desire for community deep within the human psyche. You don’t need to look far to find examples of that need for connection being expressed right now.

Tribes, and therefore brands, are an indelible part of that need for connection. People in focus groups may tell you they buy a certain pair of jeans because it makes them feel unique, but that’s not really true. They buy them because they want to be part of the group of people that's doing it – their tribe.

If we look at this through the lens of the current crisis, we are seeing the brands who are doing good for the community are faring well, and those who are seen as detrimental to the community suffering in terms of their image. For example, we saw companies such as Pret A Manger generate a lot of goodwill pre-lockdown through their policies of free meals and discounts for NHS employees. It may well be that this pandemic is causing a shift in our personal perceptions towards being part of a tribe again, and those brands who position themselves as a thoughtful and valued part of that tribe stand to reap the rewards.

Because of course, unlike products, brands aren’t wholly owned by companies. They are in the public domain. The public can shape them, make them and break them. Never was that truer than right now and that power will make itself felt long after the current crisis has passed.

The future’s bright

For creatives, there’s a lot to consider in this. Our job is to connect with people on an emotional level, at scale. We move people. And it seems if we can find a way to connect with people for the good of the group, then human beings are programmed to respond.

That’s good news for us, because it makes for more creative, emotionally driven work and it’s good news for brands, because large numbers of people want to be bound together by a common purpose.

But perhaps it’s even greater news for humanity if the brands that connect on the deepest level with people are the brands that serve the greater communal good, not individual self-interest.

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