Each generation is born into a different time, with its own set of challenges, opportunities, and shared experiences. This temporal consideration — among many other factors — plays a role in how someone might respond to a crisis.
A global generational war is brewing over the novel coronavirus. Or so it seems. Some preach the severity of the situation (often older people), while others continue with life as usual (many younger people). There are even those who act in purposeful defiance, like attending corona parties. Where is the difference in reaction coming from? It boils down to three elements that are playing out in different ways: physical distancing, cognitive dissonance, and social solidarity.
Myopia: A forgotten past
On the phone with my grandmother, before South Africa officially went into a three-week lockdown, she told me to ensure I have the following:
2. A radio
My grandmother was born in a small Karoo town in 1931, and so was raised during the Great Depression and World War II. She’d lived through scarcity, uncertainty, and boredom. Her advice for covid-19 supplies spoke to the need for sustenance (food), information (radio), and entertainment (puzzles). She’d lived through this scenario before, and has been able to adapt. However, many aren’t, whether it’s not having a similar frame of reference against which they can make judgments, or not wanting to return to a state of limitation, or not being afforded the privilege of making drastic changes to their current lifestyle, or even simply not wanting to give up their freedom of choice.
We need to understand change from multiple perspectives, and not make assumptions. In times like these, brands and businesses need to consider multiple possibilities and prepare several solutions to meet the population’s new and varied needs.
Dystopia: An apocalyptic reality
Sohail Inayatullah’s framework for thinking about the future is useful in understanding where we are right now, and where we need to be to make it through a crisis. The framework is divided into six foundational concepts:
Utopia: An imaginary future
Oscar Wilde considered progress to be the realisation of utopias. Many literary and philosophical theorists believe that a utopia is more revealing of the time in which it was formulated than of what people actually imagine would occur in the future. If, today, people dream of a future where there’s an abundance of natural resources and an elimination of inequality, this is a reflection of our present reality where we experience shortage and disparity. What could South Africa’s utopia look like?
Play. It’s something we associate with childhood, somewhat carefree and careless. However, there’s more to it. Games usually have rules and rituals attached to them which make them far more complex than mere child’s play. Games are reflective of both the players and of the times in which they are played. Social life is reflected in play.
A successful crossword puzzle is ‘creative, clever, and current’. It is about exercising your brain, escaping from daily responsibilities, and passing the time. Ford, intentionally or not, recognised the value of connecting with consumers through something that mattered to them: leisure time. The multinational brand had been part of South Africa’s motor industry since 1923 — 10 years after the crossword was introduced. In the late 1950s, a local newspaper printed a crossword puzzle. The sponsored prize was a Ford Consol. My grandfather filled in the puzzle and, when he reached the final clue, he thought he would write a humorous answer to make my grandmother smile. What was it? “Mary would be really sad to lose this: L _ M B”. The answer he wrote? “LIMB”. He won the car.
With a young democracy, South Africa is in a state of transition, and rugby has been used as a tool before to unite a divided country. Since then, youth have questioned the breadth and depth of change. We find ourselves at this threshold again.
I thought it fitting that South Africa (a former British colony) and England would be battling it out in a modern-day form of war: rugby. These two nations are not unfamiliar opponents — in sport and in actual war.
Walking through the Saturday market in Franschhoek on the day of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, it was easy to spot the tourists. They stood in stark contrast to a sea of gold and green jerseys. Dutch conversations and German accents were drowned out by South African music blaring from phones and cars hooting as they drove by with flags flailing from open windows. I found a table in a small restaurant with a TV. Behind me, an elderly couple proudly displayed their British identity and, to my left, a larger family also from England were making their presence known. Their confidence didn’t last long, as the Springboks won, and the British tourists snuck out of the restaurant, avoiding eye contact.
Conversations and media headlines that followed emphasised how ‘desperately’ South Africa needed this win: to instill a sense of national pride, to create non-political cohesion, and to enforce some kind of social transformation.
Lesson one: pick a side
It’s easy — particularly in the media, marketing and advertising industries — to want to tell feel-good stories, especially if surrounded by chaos and catastrophe. Many brands tend to avoid risk and play it safe by avoiding stories that might alienate them among particular markets; look at the polarised responses received by Gillette recently when it made noise. Alberto Brea identifies three types of brands: passive (sticking to the way things have always been done), active (encouraging engagement and co-creation with consumers), and neutral (lacking edge and purpose as they follow a linear journey).
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” — Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor & activist.
Lesson two: stand your ground
Having a clearly defined brand purpose or positioning requires consistency in communication and behaviour. Knowing what we stand for, and where we want to be, helps us figure out how to get there. Whether it is providing a platform, creating opportunities, or crafting solutions, brands and businesses have the power to influence, shape, and change the course we are on.
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” — Chinua Achebe, novelist.
Lesson three: share the glory
Many brands have access to exclusive resources and a large audience. They have the opportunity — and social responsibility — to create positive, long-term transformation. Just as the Springboks returned home and toured the country to share their victory and to recognise the role we all played, so too could brands and businesses distribute the glory.
“What we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe.” — bell hooks, activist.
#ImStaying is a Facebook group that is said to have been started with the intention of countering negative narratives about South Africa. It is intended to create inclusivity in a seemingly divided nation, to chant an anthem: “I AM STAYING!” However, the very notion of having an option to leave, but choosing to stay, is rooted in privilege.
Most of South Africa is not afforded that choice and stay out of necessity or not having an escape route. I joined the group in its early stages, hoping to indulge in stories excluded from mainstream media. What I came to find instead was underlying tones of rainbowism, tokenism, and other forms of patronising, paternalistic, privileged posts. The group was also heavily controlled, preventing any ‘negative’ comments, discussions or debates. Following from my encounter with angry drivers, I typed up a post and submitted it to the group. For a week, my post was pending approval from the group’s admin, after which someone on their side deleted it.
What did it say? It went something like this: “There is a theory in the social sciences that all the world’s problems can be traced back to three institutions: patriarchy, capitalism, and white privilege. What can we do to tackle these challenges and create the South Africa we all belong to and dream of?” Admittedly, I asked this question in the hopes of sparking a conversation but came to realise that this group isn’t the platform for confrontation, observation, or reflection. Here are three lessons for brands.
Lesson one: look for signs
Frustrated with the “toxic positivity” of the group, local artist David Scott of The Kiffness revealed that many of the people on the page were expats living abroad; they had, in fact, left (read the full story here). Scott has since created his own group, called #ImSlaying, in which people share comical photos and stories of themselves succeeding in life.
The original group should not be disregarded or completely discredited, because it exists for a reason. That reason might be that consumers of media are searching for other narratives, communities, and outlets.
False hopes are more dangerous than fears — JRR Tolkien, author
Lesson two: map the journey
South Africa faces the challenge of several legacies, of patriarchal power structures, of capitalist systems that create exclusion and invisibility, and of privilege that favours the few. We have been through this journey before. Coming from a highly racialised past and moving to democracy, younger generations have since called for the fall of sugar-coated reconciliation.
Knowing where we come from and what we have been through can help guide where we are going.
A generation which ignores history has no past, and no future — Robert Anson Heinlein, author
Lesson three: change direction
If we imagine transformation to follow the shape of an S-curve, it becomes easier to anticipate, prepare for, and shape change. A time of growth is often followed by a transition in which the old is discontinued, and the new emerges (read more about the Sigmoid Curve here).
It could be said that SA is currently in a state of transition, transformation, and uncertainty. What we do now will impact our trajectory going forward.
Where the fog is thickest, begin — Marty Rubin, author
A group of four men gathers on the pavement. A local gets nervous: “This might be the start of another protest,” he says. I am parked near an abattoir, and see a small truck transport some sheep in that direction —lambs to a slaughter, literally. The ocean air in Saldanha feels like salt on an open wound. Everything is stained a rusty red thanks to the steel factory, the town’s lifeblood.
It’s been months of talks and tension around the construction taking place in the area. Some even claim there’s a construction ‘mafia’ who behave in a destructive and aggressive manner, while others say these are agents of change ensuring the economic upliftment of emerging local contractors. Construction projects are disrupted — and often prevented from continuing — until an agreement can be made regarding stakes in the project.
With varying perspectives and differing visions for a preferred outcome, the situation could very easily become messy. The construction industry — as a complex system undergoing change — requires transformational leadership to see it through (read more here).
Simon Sinek wrote a book called Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. In it he demonstrates how assumptions impact behaviour; the difference between manipulation and inspiration; how confidence can lead to certainty; how trust emerges from an alignment of values and processes; and the importance of listening and communication.
However, leaders don’t assume one identity or role, and often struggle or fail to lead their team through transformation. Liz Wiseman, in her book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, identifies several leadership types which she categorises into “multipliers” vs “diminishers”:
Lesson 1: start with why
Change management often fails because of poor execution of a change or misdiagnosis of the problem. A potential starting point is first to sense the situation. From there, a convening question may be crafted to reveal the current narrative of the system and to tap into people’s will. After defining the scope of the problem, tools may then be deployed to help make sense of the situation and guide the approach towards a solution.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts — Winston Churchill, politician.
Lesson 2: develop the how
Lesson 2: Develop the howThe behaviours and attitudes that foster change are those that raise collective awareness of change, explore alternative methods to managing change, provide access to information about the change, and have flexible structures and processes.
If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude — Charles Revson, philanthropist.
Lesson 3: determine the what
Being a change agent requires a level of awareness and state of reflexivity. It’s important to listen to different perspectives and consider different sources of information in order to gain a holistic view of a situation, issue or solution. The overall aim is to craft a new trajectory towards a collectively defined vision through self-transforming patterns.
The acknowledgement of a single possibility can change everything — Aberjhani, author.
It is in a course on Managing for Change presented by Sarah Babb that I was introduced to different types of leadership. Liz Wiseman distinguished between Multipliers and Diminishers. What type of leader are you?