#21 What's essential? - Advertising Fundamentals, Consumer Habits & Loneliness

Ehm, what do you mean it’s not Friday? the newsletter is coming out on a Saturday? Honestly, it doesn’t matter anymore. Hope you enjoy.

This lockdown definitely has cycles. In my case, week 5 has been about looking at what I consider ‘essential’ in my life in terms of my day-to-day but also in my relationships, career and other aspects.

I found myself thinking about this job and what’s at the core of it that first attracted me. The blend of creativity, business, emotion, cultural impact and commercial knowledge made me chose this career I love. That’s what does it for me, and it’s a very personal choice - I’d love to hear what made you go down this path.

All of us that work in advertising know that for the past 20 years the industry has been engulfed in a binary debate questioning the fundamentals, clearly illustrated in the image below:

Source: Twitter / @martinweigel

Each side represents a philosophy, and those of us who’ve experienced both in our careers know that the short-sighted thing is to oppose them instead of thinking how they complement and leverage each other. Still, the debate is alive, and we all know clients and colleagues who firmly stand in one side or the other.

When we struggle, everything is put under a magnifying glass and in this context, the industry will go through a double crisis in the realms of economy and philosophy. We need to asses what is really important, both in terms of how we’ll face this and how we’ll drive business value.

We will lose some brands in this process, but if we are able to focus on the fundamentals and ask essential questions, we might have a chance. How are we going to build brand salience and equity? What creative work do we want to produce? Is there a better approach? There is one particular question proposed by Helen Edwards that has never been more pertinent, "What would people be missing if your brand did not exist?". This is the bare bones.


We’ve all heard about ‘essential travel’ and ‘essential workers’, but the word essential has also become a sort of social category that reflects an underlying identity, produced in a specific time and place. It has forced people to re-evaluate and prioritise their spending assuming scarcity, effectively breaking with a view of the world based on abundance.

Pandemic supplies by @jennisparks

A mindset based on scarcity awakens something different in us. We can see it this McKinsey report on how spending has shifted in the UK, but also in how wants and needs are rebalanced and new configurations of value emerge.

Survey: UK consumer sentiment during the coronavirus crisis, by McKinsey

It wouldn’t surprise me to see alcohol, furnishing and personal-care products bounce back in the next few weeks, but we’re not there yet. I’ve seen brands market their products as essential items to increase sales, but today, would you prefer a delivery slot in Ocado with all your order products guaranteed, or a £100 voucher from Net-a-Porter?

The takeout: Many brands are in survival mode at the moment, and as strategists, we need to focus on what’s essential from our output. It’s time for tangible impact, smart thinking with minimal fluff, attuned to what people are thinking and feeling, to solve brand problems and advise clients on how to keep afloat.


Social support and interaction is a fundamental part of human biology, but here we are, deprived of this essential survival strategy. 2020 ain’t playing games: we’re trying to cope with a global epidemic, an impending economic catastrophe AND we’re being asked to do it alone. Loneliness was on its way to become Britain’s most lethal condition, but the pandemic is making it worse: we’re being asked to resist the biology that compels us to seek out others during hard times.

To counteract this, we’re connecting with others more than ever and we’re eager to talk, laugh or cry together. I’ve lived in a different continent from my family and friends for the past 5 years, and have never done as many video calls as I’ve had in the past 2 months. There is a renewed effort put into relationships, a sense of new-ness around digital tools bringing us together.

Zoom and HouseParty will become synonyms of the pandemic and of a time when social interactions were not only mediated by technology but almost exclusively dependent on it. I really liked this from Benedict Evans:

“We’re going through a vast, forced public experiment to find out which bits of human psychology will align with which kinds of tool, just as we did with SMS, email or indeed phone calls in previous generations.”

For brands: people have never been more willing to try new apps or services that offer connection and laughter. Brands that can proactively organise things for people, offering shared spaces and experiences that are easy to join, and facilitate connection will add value to people’s lives.


So much of this year’s cultural calendar was going to be filled with activities that incorporated brand experiences - the Tokyo Olympics and Glastonbury’s 50th Anniversary were two that I was really looking forward to, but now we can expect for the virtual experience economy to be accelerated, providing experiences that we might have dismissed before.

Characters using 100Thieves apparel in Animal Crossing.

Brand 100Thieves has made its entire collection downloadable for free on Animal Crossing, which has morphed into a social media network. That includes a virtual version of every single highly-coveted piece of clothing they’ve released to date, spanning three years.

Secret Cinema moved to Zoom to bring what they call ‘congregational storytelling’ into the digital world, done in collaboration with Häagen-Dazs. Quoted in The Drum, Chief Executive Max Alexander said: “What we’re doing is kind of silly right? It’s not serious, but it is important to add some kind of structure and appointment to people’s lives; come, dress up and have a dance.” This is exactly the type of value brands need to add right now, offering scape and keeping the culture alive.

For brands: although in a virtual setting, brands shouldn’t get too obsessed by the gimmicks of technology. A service is done 'to' you, an experience is done 'with' you and it goes further, concerning itself with how people are left 'feeling'. The focus should be on creativity aligned to clear business objectives, and trying to recreate the vibe and fluidity of real-life events to deliver something memorable.


6 weeks has been enough time for an orthodoxy of pandemic ads to emerge. They all look the same, they sound the same, the use the same resources. Here’s the proof:

In the meantime, I’m craving a different type of ad. An ad that doesn’t sugarcoat what’s happening, but also doesn’t approach it with melancholy or undertones of war and heroism. A format that not only is able to sustain and strengthen a strategic proposition of a brand but also shows that is flexible enough to include new narratives while maintaining the same tone. That’s what the new NationWide ads are doing and are some of my favourite ads so far.

🕶 Bonus track

TikTok of the week: this game called ‘Who spread it?’ might win the contest for best lockdown boardgame. I need this to be mass-produced and would honestly play it in a heartbeat.

Extra links:

Thanks so much for reading, and if you want to share any thoughts on this week’s edition, just hit reply to this email and I’ll get back to you, or connect with me on Twitter.

Crisis are some of the best times to work with brands and I refuse to be sitting on my hands. I’m immediately available for work and happy to help you with strategic planning, scenario planning, insight generation, communications strategy, cultural analysis, digital and social strategy, and trend reporting. Add me on Linkedin or reply to this email if you’re interested. Thanks.

Cultural Patterns is a newsletter by Florencia Lujani about culture, creativity and strategy. If you’ve enjoyed it, consider subscribing :)