The post-peak Twilight Zone: A defining cultural trend of uncertainty
It has been eight months since the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic which has created an unprecedented global socio-economic crisis. As Wuhan residents are beginning to attend music festivals once more and UK consumers are incentivised to uplift their local restaurants with the “eat out to help out” scheme, it is beginning to look like the worst may be over and our ‘new normal’ has begun.
Of course, what that looks like – and what that will continue to look like – is a question for brands in entertainment and beyond: what new habits will their audiences adopt? In which directions must they innovate to remain atop the crest of a dawning recession? These are not easy answers to find – all the more so because the same fundamental uncertainty of “what next” now dominates the lives of consumers as well.
A year ago, the social babble was characterised by media trivialities: the critical failure of Game of Thrones Season 8, the latest game release, this or that summer music festival. A semblance of stability existed, and thus markets could grow, consumers could subscribe, and life still, well, happened.
The world is a much different place now. After months with nowhere to go and nothing to do but engage with (the now very saturated market of) digital entertainment propositions, a delicate balance exists; one in which some things from before are allowed, and some not; when being outside is a treasured luxury, but also a risk. Fear is tempered with frustration, few reliable guidelines remain consistent and little consistency in anything is to be expected.
We are currently in a sort of golden bubble of the aftermath – the eye of the storm, so to speak. As the recession deepens and a second wave of infections threatens on the horizon, consumers have lifestyle freedoms now which they did not have yesterday and may not have tomorrow. Should there be no second peak, it still remains to be seen whether the commute will make a comeback or if working from home will remain the norm; this has implications for housing markets (will populations disperse?) and retailers / hospitality (will business districts remain empty of people?) alike. It also makes a difference for podcasts, short-form video, and social media, which all benefitted from the commute. Different formats fit different lifestyles; what the majority of those lifestyles will look like going forwards will shape the course of the marketplace.
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Even if the commute returns, a recession to compete with the Great Depression will lower the numbers of future consumers on their way to the workplace and reduce the spending capacity of many more. Imperative propositions like Disney+ for families with young children, value-for-money bundles such as Amazon Prime, and ad-supported options like the ever-dominant YouTube will remain vital. Other, expensive, standalone propositions will likely not make the cut.
Atop this, political chaos lurks. A Trump presidency will look very different from a Biden presidency; this future will be determined in the coming November. In the UK, a hard Brexit is set for the beginning of January – and there is little preparation or guidance in place to prepare the country for the seemingly inevitable economic earthquake. Social turmoil also dominates discussions: with months at home without everyday distractions, climate change, social welfare and racial inequality have all seen massive long-term surges of interest. These issues have not gone away, nor have they faded from public consciousness; they will require addressing, and their addressing will ultimately require deep systemic change. If history is anything to go by, we are certainly in the right climate of social disquiet for that to happen.
Uncertainty is frightening, and fear begets volatility. Already the digital-first media culture trends towards deep divides, and the market saturation of ads and business propositions strips consumers of product loyalty; an uncertain global future will only exacerbate this. Entertainment propositions must tread carefully in such a climate, understanding where their audiences are, how to treat them well, and how to stand out from the crowd in a way that will not rapidly backfire. Cynical minds with better things to worry about will not take fondly to a brand that demands too much and takes itself too seriously; the rise of TikTok, which did neither, illustrated that well.
Until January, when we will know more about a vaccine, the job market, and the political atmosphere, it will be a difficult and uncertain time. The golden glow of re-entering a semblance of normal will not last long with all of the other factors circling farther afield.