Normality is elusive

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Last september, we were given the task of writing Ad Age's first post-9/11 Forum essay ("The impact on shaken confidence," AA, Sept. 17). We wrote it with the same blend of emotion and confusion most of us felt in those first days, and counseled brand stewards to listen and to acknowledge the full spectrum of fears and uncertainties that would likely be expressed by consumers and clients.

We suggested we were likely headed to a period of spending caution and a predictable downturn in travel. We also suggested people might seek to rebalance their priorities in the weeks and months that followed. In our ongoing Prosumer Pulse surveys, we found significant evidence of that shift, with home, family and even religion taking on greater weight.

Lastly, we suggested our industry might reflect on its possible culpability in stirring up anti-American sentiment as a result of the relentless export of our brands and culture. This was not to suggest the attacks were in any way justified, but simply to attempt to understand the mind-set that made them possible. We were dismayed, though not altogether surprised, when 17% of European poll respondents (in allied nations!) reported to us they agreed completely or somewhat that the U.S. had deserved the attacks in some way. More than one in four French respondents (27%) felt that way.

Now, with the perspective of six months, we've been asked to revisit what we've learned and to share our thoughts about where the consumer sits today. In some ways, our reactions are still bound up in emotion. We are proud of our country, of the bravery and resolve our people have shown. We have staged a successful, incident-free World Series, Super Bowl and Winter Olympics. And as each of those events passed without issue, we have felt one step closer to normalcy.

But are we yet "normal"?

We're still at war, and there may be more fronts to come. We're barely over the anthrax attacks (and still don't know their source). Then there is the brutal murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. All remind us "normal" may have a new meaning post-9/11.

brands are `trustmarks'

One thing is very clear: The events of 2001, from the dot-com collapse to the 9/11 attacks, made brand names a trustmark as never before. In uncertain times, the desire for the "new" gives way to a yearning for the known and trusted. The consumer needs to be able to rely on the fact that some things don't change. It doesn't mean product and marketing campaigns should be static, but that a strong brand essence must be protected at all costs.

This underlies a repeated reminder from Euro RSCG Worldwide Chairman Bob Schmetterer. In this new world, the work we do is important in a way it has never been before. Our work is also "Good Work" (from the book of the same name, "Good Work: Where Excellence and Ethics Meet," by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon). And herein lies, perhaps, an inflection point for our industry, and more broadly for commerce on a global basis.

The import of our work is made even stronger by the Enron scandal. It didn't simply affect that company's employees and investors but further shook consumers' faith in the corporate entities that shape our world. It wasn't "outsiders" attacking our collective sense of security; it was one of America's most trusted companies deceiving the nation. This goes well beyond the foibles of any of our past corporate icons of greed. Though all the evidence is not yet in, this seemingly is about not just widespread abuse of power but a total disregard for the consequences of unethical (certainly) and illegal (probably) practices.

As we face the challenge of doing "good work," we do so in an environment in which "normal" is redefined and in which skepticism about the corporate world abounds. The "other shoe" we fear dropping may be another terrorist attack. Or it may be an accounting scandal. This poses new challenges as we build the brands in our care as "trustmarks." Our ability to meet these challenges-and to ensure companies understand, above all else, that reputation matters-will be the true measure of success in the near future.

Ira Matathia is worldwide director of business development and Marian Salzman is worldwide director of strategy and planning, both at Havas Advertising's Euro RSCG Worldwide. New York. They are co-authors of "NEXT: Trends for the Near Future."

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