Looking beyond 90%

Sebastien Desclee, CEO of FCB NZ, looks at what brands can teach us about an effective and long-sighted Covid response.


When I left my native Belgium recently to start a new life in Aotearoa, my father didn’t hug me goodbye.

This wasn’t because he’s not a hugger and it definitely wasn’t because he wouldn’t miss me, my wife and three children, but it felt very strange.

Belgium was just coming out of the tight grasp of this pandemic with vaccination rates high and restrictions eased. My father and I are both double-vaxxed, the ‘rules’ stated that he could hug me, and he didn’t know when he was going to see me again. Yet he still bore a deep seated aversion to close physical contact, having lived through the previous 18 months of Covid-19 and all that entailed.

This virus has a long tail in many respects but one of the most impactful is its psychological legacy. Do you remember what it felt like before you heard the word “Covid-19?”. I find it hard to. We’re all beginning to experience the sensation of watching something on TV and fleetingly noticing the lack of social distancing / mask wearing, inhabiting some kind of parallel universe: a sort of Covid conditioning.   

This is due to several factors, not least of which is the very real threat the virus poses to all areas of our global population. But another major factor is communication and a short-term view.

Laser Focus

Media attention, both from traditional media and social platforms, has been laser focused on Covid-19. Of course communication in times of a global crisis is imperative. And the very nature of the virus means reporting is naturally negatively biased. But the sheer volume of comms is often disproportionate – and the quality of coverage is at best balanced and fact based, at worst false and dishonest.

A lot of thinking  and messaging currently focuses on the short term: number of cases, number of hospitalisations, vaccination rates etc. But we need to lift and shift our gaze to a horizon further afield: that horizon holds the question: what happens when the dust settles, vaccination rates are sufficient to open borders, case numbers are low and we can live relatively freely once again? Notice I don’t use the term ‘return to normal’. What are our plans to navigate this ‘new’ normal? How do we address the psychological long tail of the pandemic?

The Golden Ticket

Right now in New Zealand, our target is relatively short-term as we focus on restriction levels, case numbers and vaccination rates: The 90% Project has been launched by media organisations, and Government-led initiatives like Super Sunday encourage our population to vaccinate abound. The Prime Minister specifically made a visit to the least vaccinated town in New Zealand, Murupara, to highlight the urgency. This is important and timely work, and eyes are firmly on the prize of a population of at least 90% fully vaccinated in the very near future: although not explicitly stated, it is implied: 90% is our golden ticket to easing restrictions. 90% is a lofty ambition; at the time of writing only Ireland had reached that goal. It may take some time – for many sociological reasons (this is another subject entirely).

Covid Implications

Whilst we work on our vaccination target, we can and should look further into the future, understanding the longstanding implications of the last two years for various social groups across three key areas; mental health, physical health and social interaction.

At the lighter end of the scale, examples abound – even when we are able to socialise relatively normally, older generations will take some time for the residual fear to dissipate. Older people are often more vulnerable than others and many have experienced illness of some kind. Their fears are warranted, but I wonder how much of this is perpetuated by the continual stream of Covid news, stats and misinformation. 

Many aged 18 to late twenties have missed the foundational experience of going overseas,  have abandoned their dreams of the “OE”, deciding instead to try and buy houses, or dogs, or both. This sharp turn in a life plan colours everything that goes after it: travel will of course return, but time stands still for no-one and that particular moment is lost, or at the very least postponed indefinitely.

Children and teenagers are missing out on school time, social interaction, exam opportunities and early university years.

At the darker end of the scale we have the very real issues of anxiety, depression, addiction, isolation, household crowding, financial stress, family violence and child wellbeing.

Even when the world is put to relative rights, for many of us the medium to long term effects of this journey we’re on are likely to last for some time.

What Brands Can Teach Us: A Dual and Well-Balanced Approach
(1) Timely

There is some symmetry between our response to Covid-19 and the successful handling of a brand. A good brand strategy will pay attention to both timely and timeless messaging to its customers. In brand terms, timely messaging might include promotional, time sensitive propositions: a special deal or a limited offer. Using one of our clients as an example, PAK’nSAVE’s Stickman often rolls out timely messaging based on in-store offers happening that week. The timely nature of the Covid-19 response is currently a huge vaccination drive (for example “Super Saturday” has just been announced).

An over reliance on timely efforts can backfire and seriously damage a brands’ long-term relevance and equity: There are numerous examples of brands in the UK (the country with the highest FMCG promo rate in Europe) that are suffering from this excess: examples are rife in the car industry with mid-tier French brands losing equity with excessive rebates.

(2) Timeless

But good brand positioning and brand health will also need a timeless strategy, focusing on the big picture, the overall goal, nourishing the brand purpose and values in engaging with its audience. This could equate to brand integrity, reaching or maintaining most-loved status, and building customer loyalty (I turn once again to Stickman and his series of most-loved accolades).

In terms of our Covid response this is the piece I believe is missing. It’s time to lift our gaze and look further than 90%, when we’re vaccinated and borders are open again. The work hasn’t stopped when this happens, it has just begun. We will need to address the medium to long-term social and psychological effects left behind long after the pandemic has faded into “remember when”.

What’s a better long-term goal than working towards mental, physical and social wellbeing, bringing Kiwis back to living happily together, open to each other, and open to the world?

Short of hugging my father, I can’t think of anything. 

This piece was published in the NZ Herald, October 2021.