Opinion: Forget the 'blandvertising' and actually help in the age of uncertainty

If you thought lockdown was weird, emerging out of your home is even stranger. My first foray out after eight weeks under the Movement Control Order in Johor was what I imagine a rabbit might feel after it has hidden from a fox. I rubbed my eyes a bit, the sun felt really bright. And then I saw people. People! You know, those things in front of fake beaches on Zoom. Aren’t they just pixels? Apparently not. There they were, walking around, brazen as you like.

I was hoping for some semblance of normality. The problem is that post-zombie apocalypse reality can be stranger than fiction.What do you do around people? Was it one metre, or six feet, or two metres? And how far is that in a supermarket isle? It felt burdensome, trying to work out the difference between responsibility and paranoia. I ended up hurrying home.

A couple of weeks later, I might be less weirded out by people, but I’m still not sure what to think. And that lack of surety is the key. Like Will, Simon, Neil and Jay, of the British comedy The Inbetweeners, when I’m out, I feel gangly, lumpy, in between being quarantined and being in 2019. It’s like I forget how to use my words or my outdoor voice once the mask is on.

And the thing is, there is still a virus out there. How virulent is it? How deadly is it? Who the f**k knows what is going on now, never mind what is to come. That is not going to stop us from prognosticating or thinking we can call it. It is just that, it is probably like trying to call the bottom of a stock market slump. Both habits that I have been trying to kick for many years.

Saying “I don’t know” is not very fashionable, despite the best efforts of Chamath Palihapitiya, Canadian-American venture capitalist as well as founder and CEO of Social Capital, to convince us otherwise.

It doesn’t feel powerful. It feels dumb, yet somewhat liberating.

Some of what is happening is not new, it is simply being amplified by the "Coronacoaster". Mass global lockdowns caused years of trends to happen in days. You know the score already. eCommerce, genomic databases, 3D printing, AI, even drone deliveries; these are not new, we all should have been preparing for it, and now we have no choice.

For anyone who had been contemplating digital transformation but had been delaying jumping in, mass work from home has forced the issue. Zoom is now worth more than the seven largest airlines combined.

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Closer to home the closure of bubble tea shops under the Circuit Breaker period drove mass adoption of eCommerce for consumables.

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That is not where the uncertainty lies. While trying to work out what troubled me, I had a sudden bolt of inspiration. I miss lockdown. There. I said it. That will not make me popular in many quarters, but it is true.

Lockdown removed the need to think. We were told what we could and couldn’t do, and if we followed the rules, we enjoyed a moment of international solidarity - and we felt safe. We could just focus on taking it one day at a time. We got to slow down. Got re-introduced to our family. Our house. Our minds and bodies. And after a couple of weeks, we got into a groove.

But now, we don’t know what we are doing. Are we paranoid if we stay in? Or are we dicing with death if we go out? Are we anti-social if we don’t want to meet friends, or are we grandma-killers if we do? There is a heavy psychological burden that has been placed on the heads of citizens everywhere, because the rules of lockdown were onerous but clear. Now, it feels like we are on our own.

So if governments remove themselves, do we have brands to fall back on? Isn’t it strange that everyone wanted to rush in to say "we are in this together" when lockdown started, but now, we just have to get on with it?

I don’t know about you, but I feel like we need help. I don’t want this to be politicised or weaponised. I just want to keep my family safe, adopt better (healthier / lower carbon) habits, and get back out there. I don’t want to take this journey of physical re-integration while being socially isolated, our heroes already forgotten, like in Italy according to BBC. So, what to do?

Support the heroes and instead forget the blandvertising, the trite forgettable messaging. All those copy and paste "we take care of people" messages are meaningless without action. Brands that actually truly look to make a difference can win hearts and minds for years to come.

A great example is Netflix. They have announced they will reach out and help subscribers who are paying for inactive accounts to cancel them. This is so refreshing. After years and years of increasingly clever "Dark Patterns" being used to trick us into giving away our data, buying and subscribing to things that we don’t want or need, and then making it really hard to get out of it, it is time the tide was turned.

That was the best of us, during lockdown. We came together, we helped the most vulnerable. Let us hold brands to those standards, and let us live up to those standards for the brands we serve. Do that, make prudent decisions to survive the economic slump we are in, and we do not need to keep feeling alone.

The writer is Keith Timimi, chief innovation officer, VMLY&R Asia.