“Home On The (Long) Range”
Forbes, May 2020
Eleven years ago, I wrote about the future of home for the Financial Times. Little did I imagine how intimately familiar most of us would become with our living spaces. As we move from lockdown to a (for most of us) slow and highly tentative return to the outside world, I thought it worthwhile to revisit the topic and consider how the pandemic is likely to shift our relationship with and use of our homes in coming years.
Under One Roof
“We both have careers that keep us busy. Now, for the last 60-plus days, we’ve been home with our four-year-old, in our two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in NYC,” said Alexander Rea, partner at the New York City-based creative and production consultancy Aux.
Spending more time at home, in close quarters with family members or roommates, has shifted the balance between “togetherness” and “me-time.” Carving out personal space (no matter how small or temporary) is becoming a bigger priority for many of us, especially for those with children and postage-stamp-sized apartments or dwellings lacking natural hideaways.
“While open ‘great rooms’ have been the focus of residential design over the past 20 or so years, I think we are now all starting to appreciate how these communal spaces need to be balanced by more intimate spaces,” noted Tala Klinck, Principal, Tala Klinck Architect, LLC, in Cambridge, MA.
The trend away from nuclear families also means our priorities for and expectations of the spaces in which we live are diversifying. From co-living spaces to multigenerational households and singletons opting to live alone or with friends, one thing is certain: No one size fits all.
“How one’s home shapes or suits a family is at the forefront of home buyers’ minds,” noted David Parsons, President of RE/MAX North Professionals in Burlington, VT. “I’m seeing a renewed interest in ancillary spaces like mother-in-law apartments as people consider the people or family members they want in their ‘social bubble’ and are eager to have help around the house as they juggle work with child-rearing.”
Expect this trend to grow, especially in light of changing demographics.
For some time now, there has been concern about the impact on the housing market of the aging baby boomer generation (aka the “silver tsunami”). In the U.S., an estimated one in three homes is owned by someone aged 60 or over, according to a report from real estate site Zillow late last year. As families look for alternatives to nursing homes and other care facilities for loved ones—a desire intensified by high COVID-19 death rates in such communal living spaces—we can expect the composition of homes to change.
“One can imagine adding an accessory unit to a house as an in-law suite that later might be inhabited by a child home from college and then rented out when unused by the family. These spaces can provide a lot of financial and spatial flexibility, and incorporating a rental space into a property can add a lot of value for homeowners,” added Klinck.
This may be true for those who have the option to undertake major renovations or move. However, for the vast majority, these choices may not exist, whether because of financial or job constraints or an inability to sell their current homes.
“The biggest rumors I’m reading is that ‘everyone’ is fleeing cities; I’ve not actually seen any evidence as yet,” said Rea.
For the near term, it’s likely that the great urban exodus is more of a daydream than a reality. (And who hasn’t been daydreaming of a better lifestyle and surroundings during this shutdown—googling real estate listings and pinning fantasy layouts and décor?) Given the economic downturn, plenty of people will stay in urban economic engines for now, but I fully expect a slow migration toward smaller, less congested cities and exurbs.
Every home tells a story
“We’ve seen an interest in investing in making ‘home’ as it stands now nicer and better. Projects that were put off are now more of a priority because it will make being at home a more enjoyable experience,” shared Annie Draddy, co-owner of the professional organizing company Henry & Higby, based in New York City.
Analysis by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia indicates that spending on household furnishings and equipment in that market grew 53% in early May compared with previous weeks, as people busy themselves with home improvement projects.
And in the U.S., Parsons, a Realtor with access to countless homes, said that he has seen a shift not just in what his clients are looking for in their homes but also in how they are using them: “Makeshift school rooms (or corners of a living room) decorated appropriately for a learning environment with all of the necessary tools nearby and organized have sprung up in small and large homes alike.”
He also commented on the bespoke corners of homes that are being designed with videoconferencing in mind. Homeowners are rearranging rooms for optimal lighting and repositioning artwork and bookshelves to let video voyeurs know who the individual is—or at least how he or she wishes to be perceived. Our newfound ability to peer into the inner sanctums of colleagues, bosses, and high-profile celebrities has fed an obsession with Zoom backdrops and ranking home office looks on Twitter. If you’re looking for a rabbit hole to fall down, the Bookcase Credibility Twitter feed is worth a look.
While many of us are growing tired of the inside of our homes, we are valuing and tending to them more. Early signs from countries that have started to ease lockdowns show garden centers are booming along with sales of candles, attesting to the desire for coziness and comfort.
The Home Office Dining Room
In my 2009 article, I anticipated the rise in remote working as an outcome of the economic crisis: “With so much home work, what’s more sensible than private home offices, carved out to ensure maximum efficiency, privacy, and productivity? We’ll start to obsess about getting this atmosphere just right—the perfect ergonomic chair, the perfect desk, the perfect filing cabinet.”
For those of us lucky enough to be working from home today, we understand the importance of a good chair, but what emerges as even more important for our home offices today is adaptability and multifunctionality.
“The flexibility to use a large table for multiple activities negates each activity requiring its own space,” said Klinck. “Instead, you have a flexible space that is ideally paired with adjacent, well-designed storage that can hold the materials specific to each task. For example, the laptop and learning materials get put away (and maybe charged) when the table is set for dinner.”
London-based interior designer Pierrette Bentinck of Studio Bentinck addressed the importance of function, noting that while her clients still want items in their homes to look good, they also want their homes to be more functional: “Several of my clients have requested help finding new dining tables and chairs, items that bring people together but offer greater functionality. They still need to look good but have to work for individuals and families more than before.”
As marketers, we can learn a lot about what happens around the dining table. Not just the conversations but how the tables are being used (for folding laundry, remote learning sessions, family game nights, and, well, eating meals); when (all day, every day); and by whom (everyone). Studying consumer behaviors and patterns is the lifeblood of our industry, and the COVID-driven shift in human behavior has much to teach us about how to communicate now.
More than two decades ago, many people were stockpiling bottled water and canned goods as the world fretted about the turn of the millennium and the dreaded Y2K bug. The calamity we feared at the turn of the century is nothing like what we are experiencing now. But it reminds me that this moment in time will be an opportunity lost if we don’t take advantage of our present circumstances to design a reset—to look at the new lives we will be living and to choose a seat at the table we want.
“The Future Shines Bright For Collectives”
Forbes, May 2020
Small and medium-sized enterprises represent roughly 90% of businesses and more than 50% of employment worldwide, according to the World Bank. As such, they are a critical component of the global economic recovery, and many governments are working hard to fast-track funds to keep them afloat.
Beyond the financial infusions needed, I’ve been thinking about in what other ways smaller businesses will need to adapt. Taking into account our now hyperconnected society, the impact of remote work environments, and what we’ve learned about health and humanity, what will small businesses of the future look like?
“I know for certain I only want to spend my precious time working with people 1) I like, 2) I trust, and 3) who make me better. I can’t imagine I’m alone on this,” shares Ryan Berman, founder of Courageous and author of Return on Courage: A Business Playbook for Change.
Certainly among the best assets of any small business are connections and community. That has not changed over the years. Many of us choose to shop small because we know the owner (or at least feel as though we do through years of pleasantries at checkout). While some businesses have found it challenging to maintain these relationships during the pandemic, those that have pivoted by tapping into their communities in creative ways may prove to be one step ahead.
“I believe that community values will play a large role. The whole ‘shop local’ movement that started before COVID is getting even more traction now—both because we want to support our local restaurant or store, and also because we are warier of what comes from afar,” notes Fernanda Romano, CMO of apparel and textile manufacturer Alpargatas in São Paulo. “In our case, our Havaianas brand has launched a comms platform entirely based on exercising one’s empathy, and we used the ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes’ (in our case, sandals) as the motto for it. We asked people to understand this is a shared moment and to be helpful and generous, and we have seen enormous resonance of the message.”
Tight bonds with local communities are also allowing small businesses to remain closely attuned to their customers’ changing needs, helping these businesses to rewrite the playbook on adaptability and consumer-centricity.
Throughout the pandemic, entrepreneurial businesses have been creatively adapting their products and services for the COVID-19 era. For example, Zootility Tools, a Maine-based company manufacturing multiuse tools such as pocket-knifes—typically on demand in tourist locations—was quick to adapt by developing a product that can be used to safely touch surfaces and open doors.
The real estate industry also is exploring new ways of working. According to Charles Meister, CEO of California-based iStreem Media, a small business applying digital technologies to the commercial and residential real estate world, businesses like his are partnering with others to offer new services: “We are working collaboratively with partners like Matterport 3D to create virtual tours and digital media. These technologies are a game changer for small spaces like apartments and small homes.”
Local associations and collaborative platforms also are enjoying a renewal. “[This crisis presents] an ideal new role for local chambers of commerce,” explains Julieta Smith, a longtime agency strategist based in Connecticut. “Small makers have Etsy, and mass stores have their own web presences and/or Amazon. But the local chambers of (modern) commerce could aggregate all the local businesses and call it, say, shopmilford.com. They would essentially serve as a brokering house for any businesses without a web presence and could be a simple link to those who do have one. They could also get a small percentage of sales for this work to keep their efforts funded and negotiate shared services like tech support, servers, or even common delivery from locals. It would help create a brand identity for supporting local businesses.”
Some communities are already taking these ideas on board, notes James “Chris” Harty, a businessperson in southern Rhode Island: “Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce is doing sterling work [in bringing businesses together]. You can see the results on various sites, including Stonington Community Forum and the chamber’s website.”
As marketers, we have always understood the impact and role of community and partnerships on small businesses. That cuts both ways. Think of all those local bank branch and pizzeria logos emblazoned on football (and soccer) jerseys, Little League fields, and bowling alleys—and all those gift certificates and goody bags donated by small businesses to support local fundraisers. These businesses are the lifeblood of many communities, and we are seeing plenty of efforts made during this crisis to return the favor. In the U.S., for instance, Rally for Restaurants is encouraging people to support hard-hit local restaurants by ordering takeout or purchasing gift certificates for future use.
These community connections will continue in the post-COVID era but look for big brands to weigh in as well. Consider for instance, brands repurposing their large office buildings for community needs. Places that – with greater space for social distancing – can support the community in ways we hadn’t realized. We’ve already seeing some examples of this in support of the pandemic, like in the United Arab Emirates where many government and business buildings have been repurposed for medical care and storage and in parts of Scotland where unused buildings have been repurposed as food distribution points.
Large brands, too, have been quick to offer support to small businesses. Facebook is offering $100 million in cash grants and ad credits to help small businesses struggling during the shutdown. In March, Yelp announced $25 million in relief for small businesses by providing free ads and use of its products and services. As we ease out of lockdowns, will we begin to see more media outlets and large brands offering their media space to small businesses?
One thing is certain. The pandemic is enabling businesses of all sizes to reassess what matters.
“This is an event that makes people understand that health and freedom are more precious than diamonds and wine,” notes Erik Saelens of Brandhome in Antwerp, Belgium. “For marketers, I believe the focus will be more on social responsibility than on authenticity. Is socially responsible the new authentic?”
Perhaps our focus should be not just on how marketers can help small businesses today but also on how we can learn from them.
“This is something that we all get to affect. It’s not a given. I think we all need to ask ourselves, from our own experience during this time, how we would like the future to be and to take responsibility in creating that,” says Mathias Jakobsen of Implement Consulting Group in Copenhagen.
As small businesses pivot to stay afloat in the immediate aftermath of this pandemic, they are teaching us valuable lessons of collaboration, ingenuity, and the value of forging authentic connections with consumers and communities. We should both pay heed and repay them in any way we can.
“Co-Creating Our Future”
Forbes, May 2020
“We before me.” It’s not a novel concept. Long before the COVID-19 crisis, we saw it shape societal and political movements, drive consumer choice, and define brands—think Vetements, the French “design collective,” or the rise of the sharing economy.
In some cultures, the importance of family and society traditionally has outweighed individual desires—take, for example, Japan, where wearing a mask out of respect for others has been common practice since long before this global pandemic.
The Latino community also tends to emphasize the collective. Tony Dagnery, marketing operations consultant at SIMBIOSIS Consulting, explains: “[Members] of the Latino community … think and behave in terms of the ‘we’ as opposed to the ‘me.’ This comes from our cultures, from our countries of origin, perhaps because we have gone through some forms of hardship together. We tend to help each other or at least think collectively.” Historically, immigrant communities around the world have supported one another, whether it be Italians emigrating to New York City in the early 1900s or Turks who have settled in Berlin in 2020. Those who come first help those who arrive later.
This same sense of shared responsibility and the power of the collective is making headlines today. An individual can shine—not least, NYC sculptor Rhonda Roland Shearer, who has racked up $600,000 in debt procuring critical personal protective equipment for city healthcare workers—but it’s the team effort that leads to the most enduring impact.
With this in mind, Dagnery poses a compelling question: “Would it be possible that we can ‘borrow’ a little bit from other cultures and develop a more unified attitude toward values, livelihood, business, communication, marketing, healthcare, etc.?”
Microsoft demonstrates some of these values in its new Teams ad, released in late April. Speaking on the virtual meeting platform, professionals from across the globe address the security, simplicity, and business continuity the service provides. Keeping collaboration at the center.
My local Stop & Shop grocery store ran a similarly people-centric ad—but with a twist—using shoppers to reinforce the importance of our shared responsibilities with a simple message: “Please. Please maintain social distancing. Please wear a mask. Please shop solo. Thank you.”
In 2013, I talked about the rise of “co-” words (co-create, co-parent, copreneur) as an antidote to all of the anger swirling in the world. I find it reassuring to see marketers co-opting this idea today as we relearn the value of coexisting in our communities—at a safe distance.
“When we come out of this, people will remember who did the right thing,” says Willem-Albert Bol of DPG Media Group in the Netherlands, speaking about how brands handle this crisis.
Gijs de Beus, a strategist with Friends & Foes in Amsterdam, considers the impact as the lockdowns wear on: “The underlying anxiety is a loss of control. So people either go out of their way to regain a sense of control (lots of home improvement going on in the Netherlands!) or by (re-)claiming their freedom; yesterday saw the first—small—demonstrations against the lockdown measures.”
The Dutch have coined several words to describe the impact, emotions, and actions resulting from the pandemic. Among them, coronahufter (coronajerk), which describes someone who disregards social distancing rules in stores, and toogviroloog (blather-virologist),for someone who spreads misinformation about the virus. In the U.S., we have covidiot and morona to describe those who disregard health and safety guidance during the pandemic. In Germany, there’s hamsterkaufing—tostockpile food like a hamster.
This emerging vocabulary expresses the frustration many of us feel toward those who are putting their individual liberties and preferences above the collective good. American prohibitionist John B. Finch is credited with saying, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” This statement, made in 1882, is entirely apt today. Whenever we emerge from our corona-cocoons, our decision not to wear a mask, not to maintain social distancing, or to touch communal items (an ATM or elevator button, for instance) without sanitary precautions could very well hurt those around us. We can no longer go about our daily business without thinking of our impact on others. And that’s not a bad thing—for people or for businesses and brands. We’ve always all been in this together; we just haven’t always acted like it.
“Collaboration should be one of the keywords of 2020,” notes marketer Nancy Shenker, founder and CEO of theONswitch. “Resources are scarce, and if small businesses are able to pool their funds and talents to deliver a bigger and better mousetrap, they should definitely do it. One simple example has been the creation of local social media groups to promote restaurants that have been hit hard by COVID-19. I also know an aesthetician who is unable to perform services but is acting as a reseller of other brands on her website. Finding strategic partners with complementary offers can be a great way to keep businesses prospering during a cash-strapped time.”
Leslie Singer, who teaches the history of advertising at the New York School of Visual Arts, adds: “I talk a lot about how culture drives advertising and advertising drives culture. I believe this COVID experience will open the door to a new form of intimacy—the very thing we assumed digital took away.”
As we all spend more time on Zoom, Google Meets, and in remote classrooms, we can begin to imagine the role of platform and marketing cooperatives in the future. Think: Digital platforms that connect not only individuals but entire communities. Cooperative housing neighborhoods that cater to multigenerational families. Collective “ghost kitchens” that focus on takeout versus in-house dining.
Looking ahead, I hope the silver lining of these times will be a return to a sense of true community and shared responsibility. Our “me” culture wasn’t cutting it.