Change is the only certainty

by Louise Burgers. Where everything is radically altered, virtually overnight, there is only change – and how well we all adapt to the uncertainty that will be present for the next few years.

by Louise Burgers. Where everything is radically altered, virtually overnight, there can be no ‘new normal’ or a ‘next normal’ or even an ‘abnormal’. There is only change – and how well we all adapt to the uncertainty that will be present for the next few years.

I’ve read and listened to dozens of futurists and trend experts and brand gurus over the past couple of months, trying to make sense of how business and culture has been transformed; but like the COVID-19 coronavirus, everything keeps evolving. There is only uncertainty. And the way to deal with that uncertainty is to accept that everything will change; and then work out how to adapt your business, industry practices, and understand what your consumers are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, as they try to assimilate to the disruption that has upended all our lives and livelihoods on a global scale never before witnessed in modern history.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you will know that in the Star Trek series, one of the most evil villains destroying cultures and civilisations are the cybernetic Borg, which use a process of “assimilation” to integrate all lifeforms, cultures, technology and even planets that they encounter; forcibly transforming all lifeforms in their relentless march across the universe. “Resistance is futile” is the declaration of the Borg, also now integrated into our popular culture. This virus has transformed our whole modern age in a matter of months, destroying industries, changing culture, and will no doubt transform governments across the world in time too. And while we may not end up as drone-like cyborgs, everything has changed, whether we like it or not. It is at this intersection of our lives pre-COVID and post-COVID, that brands need to focus on to anticipate the needs of their customers.

What is normal?

This week, McKinsey called it the “next normal” that retailers have to adapt to. The week before, Wunderman Thompson were still talking about the “new normal” in its update of its annual Future 100 report to reflect the current news cycle which has overtaken most trend predictions made for this decade. We know there have been dramatic shifts in consumer behaviour and sentiment; as well as economies crushed around the world. The real question is, what now? How does business behave at this moment to ensure they attract the spend of the consumer, most of whom are already a lot poorer as incomes crash along with economic activity or the lack thereof. McKinsey uses the word of the moment to describe what retailers need to do: “pivot”. And rapidly.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the retail industry, forcing the closure of physical stores and causing uncertainty for the future in-store experience. These abrupt shifts have left many retailers scrambling to effectively serve customers through other channels. Digital-first and omnichannel retailers have pivoted more easily; but retailers that prioritised physical stores and face-to-face engagement over omnichannel strategies have struggled to respond,” reports McKinsey, which has tracked changing consumer behaviours in countries from China to the United States. From a consolidation of shopping trips; the decline of grocery transactions by 30%, but value per transition increasing by 69%; the switch to ecommerce where available; to customers switching away from their primary store; and trying new omnichannel models, such as buy online and pick up at store (BOPIS), they are delivering daily change management reports.

“More important, many of these new engagement models are here to stay. Consumers report high intention to continue using models such as BOPIS (56%) and grocery delivery (45%) after the pandemic. To remain relevant in this changed environment, retailers should set a North Star to guide their aspirations for customer experience, with specific goals across five actions: double down on digital; inject innovation into omnichannel; transform store operations; reimagine the physical network; and embrace an agile operating model.” For more detail, read here.

So, what next?

In a webinar from Kantar that we reported on last month on radical shifts in consumer behaviour, Lynne Gordon, managing partner, Kantar Insights, added that identifying the long-term forces of change that we can predict right now; will prepare us for the next big shifts and businesses that take the lead will respond to change today and invest to understand the world of tomorrow. “What steps will your business take next to understand future forces and the drivers of change to prepare for the future?” she asked. This is what she recommended:

  • The first step is understanding where you are today with your business and in your industry sector; as it incorporates a deeper understanding of the shifts underway in your category now. Despite the current crisis, brands need to think beyond today to prepare for recovery.
  • Engage your executive leadership and stakeholders to map out the responses for your business today; plan for recovery; and prepare for the future.
  • Take action: capture and share a priority action plan to guide your business through the crisis and towards future growth.

Business intelligence event organiser Heavy Chef attempted to make sense of our collective shock at finding ourselves in a global lockdown and economic destruction, by bringing all the futurists in during the initial chaos of hard lockdown. On the bill were Dion Chang, founder Flux Trends; Bronwyn Williams, founder Apollo42; Musa Kalenga, founder Bridge Labs; along with MCs Mike Perk, founder of Future Fit and Fred Roed, Heavy Chef CEO. Roed spoke about having to put their entire business of live events, online in the matter of a couple of weeks in the month of March. Perk termed what we are going through as a collective as “the biggest societal shift since World War II”: “A lot of us are struggling with this change. As leaders and entrepreneurs and team members, we will be at different points of that emotional point at different times. We will react in different ways. We will be feeling fear and anxiety.” He called for empathy at this time from business leaders.

The other side of chaos

Williams emphasised that futurists tried not to predict the future; but described what was possible and what was impossible and anything in the realm of possibility. “In chaotic systems we are only seeing a little bit at a time. That is why we can’t predict the weather with absolute certainty.” It was in times like this that our view of the future got narrower, she says. “As futurists, we try encourage people to focus on what should happen. The realm of probable is that we can work towards a move to a more desirable future than what we can see ahead of us.” She said we need to ask ourselves two questions:

  1. How long is this chaos going to last? This is difficult as we are not in control of nature. This pandemic is a predictable, but low probability event. It is not a Black Swan event, as epidemiologists have been predicting a mass virus outbreak for decades that would most likely be spread by air travel. The fact is that when lockdown ends, it won’t be the end of the uncertainty or the impact of the virus. Globally, we are facing about 18 months to several years of uncertainty and a changed world.
  2. How much will it cost us? Williams calls it the “great separation”, where the world continues, but with remote working and social distancing in place for a while. We will have a short health crisis; but a long and deep economic crisis. “A Great Depression is the most dystopian scenario: prepare mentally for the worst and plan for the best. We need to survive the immediate future: Keep Calm and Carry On at least two metres from everyone else.” The trade off between health and the economy will be debated for years, but the fact is that we are all in this together and we need to get through this. Simply put, there is no economy with a large group of sick people in the population, Williams said. There will be many such trade-offs in our future:

Economic & environment. We need to think longer term as to how we can build sustainable economic growth.

Old vs Young. The crisis has highlighted those fractures in our society.

Surveillance vs Safety. Government has permission to track you through your phone. Looking further ahead, humanitarian values like freedom of movement and speech are precious. We are at risk of weakening those hard-won rights.

Authoritarianism vs democracy. Balancing the needs of short-term crisis vs long term needs for freedom.

Individualism vs collectivism. There has to be a culture of collective consciousness. We can’t only depend on the authorities to get us through this crisis. We have to find that balance between individual responsibility and kindness, Williams advises. Supporting local business, for example.

Musa Kalenga, who has worked on deep strategic planning with African blue-chip corporates on how to practically tackle the current crisis, says we can work on resuscitating the economy; but right now, need to focus on our humanity. “This is the greatest pilot project that South Africa never wanted: remote working. Technology is a great thing to adopt, but we can’t force people to go back to the old normal. Those who have proven they can be productive at home may not want to go back to an office.” He said there was also a clash in leadership, as right now soft skills were needed, with leaders that were empathic, open and honest. “Africa has to bounce back. We need leaders who can lead at the speed of light. They will prevail. We will also have a renewed understanding and appreciation for science, and for nature. This will be a refresh for our society. Don’t over strategise, sanitise!”

The great uncoupling

Dion Chang describes this as the “great uncoupling”. Supply chains will be reimagined; the great separation divide is also about technological distancing for the haves and have nots. At the global tech show CES, in Las Vegas in January 2020, Chang reported that there was a huge array of dystopian design on display already, ahead of this pandemic sweeping the globe. “We saw airbreathing masks; telemedicine; contactless services; tech for home schooling and online shopping; contactless cards, tapping, all on display. Be prepared. In China they used tiny robotic autonomous cars for disinfecting public spaces. We saw drone technology used for surveillance, with face recognition technology. What seemed dystopian and authoritarian, has now spread across the world.”

He predicted a fork in the road for all these technologies with this pandemic; as well as a general decoupling of supply chains reliant on single source manufacture and supply; and that there would be a huge philanthropic pivot with emphatic brands leading the way – as seen among the great fashion houses now manufacturing PPE scrubs for doctors and nurses and hand sanitiser. Opportunities existed for small business to assist with delivery for grocery chains – as we have seen in South Africa already.

As Bronwyn Williams said: “The future is unchartered, uncolonised territory. The future only belongs to people who think about it, who plan about it. As things are broken, many businesses will have to reinvent themselves – what will we want to take with us and what do we want to leave behind? We can build on the past and leave a lot of the mistakes behind; but also carry forward what we can build on.”

Prepare to assimilate.


Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.

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