OPINION6 September 2022

Research challenges in a turbulent world

Cost of Living Covid-19 Inclusion Opinion Sustainability

From the cost-of-living crisis to the climate crisis, the world seems to be more turbulent than it has been in generations. Louise McLaren at Lovebrands examines the challenges and opportunities for research.

Balloon about to burst on thumbtack

One morning last month, I went out to buy bread.  It was another heatwave so I went early.  I picked up cheese at the same time, and the shopkeeper pointed out that all I now needed was butter. In the conversation that ensued, I learned that there is a butter shortage due to the prolonged dry spell.

As I gently perspired on the way back up the hill, craving the salty butter I couldn’t buy, I thought about the collision of events that can make it feel like the world is more challenging than in our living memories.

Indeed, in a conversation the day before with a cross-agency working group I am part of, we had found ourselves talking about the enduring impacts of the pandemic on our teams, the cost-of-living creating new strains on colleagues and the looming backdrop of climate change. 

The rolling turmoil of the world today, recently coined as a ‘permacrisis’, creates amplified pressures – and opportunities, framed in another way – for research and insight professionals.  Difficult times often require different thinking.

So yes, opportunities – there is a positive way to frame this challenging context as sharpening the role for us as an industry to add strategic value, and do interesting, meaningful work.

There are three skills that we will particularly need to help us navigate these times as effective partners to our clients and stakeholders.

Capable of shaping and holding multiple futures
Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic was predicted. But few people heard the signals, or really listened when they did hear, or knew what to do with the risks. Most of us included, no doubt. While single events such as the pandemic (or a future one) could be predicted, it’s harder to anticipate how they could unfold, as a multitude of factors come into play. Things become even harder to anticipate when we consider how forces can collide – such as the enduring pandemic with a cost-of-living crisis along with a new government in the UK or possibility of one in the US (Trump hasn’t gone away, folks).

To build resilience into strategy work we need to become more comfortable working with multiple uncertainties, and consider how they could combine to shape different future possibilities. This might sound like it’s the sort of far-reaching future scenarios work that is out of scope of typical insight projects but it is not – or it needn’t be. 

When we tackle brand strategy and innovation work, we increasingly need to be clear that the future context we are projecting our new products into is not predictable. And we need to work constructively with this lack of predictability by imagining different future scenarios and visualising our outcomes within those. From this vantage point, we can reach back to the nearer-term and better anticipate potential nearer-term risks and opportunities to seize.

Playing the long and the short
This takes me on to my second point. We will find ourselves, as summer turns into winter wrestling with micro pressure points. Perhaps there are supply chain issues affecting the brands we are working on, perhaps we are dealing with customers refusing to or unable to pay bills.  

It’s going to be important for us to partner with our clients and stakeholders to tackle the short crises without losing sight of the bigger picture. How does a business’s response to inflation risk affecting customer loyalty? How does a piece of communication in a time of economic instability risk landing badly and causing reputational damage? 

We need to be bold in foreseeing possible risks, in voicing these and keeping an eye together on the longer-term – innovation roadmaps, brand strategies, business plans. Ensuring the crisis-management and tactical steps we take don’t deviate us off-course and cause fundamental brand challenges that are hard to resolve.

Playing the long and the short games at the same time requires us to listen to a wide range of voices. Rightly, the lack of diversity and inclusivity in marketing services sectors has been a burning issue in recent years. Difficult times – environmentally, economically – must accelerate our scrutiny of our diversity, equality and inclusion strategies. Both as businesses, but also in how we apply these to our project work.

Just as climate change is already disproportionately affecting the poor, it goes without saying that inflation will affect those already struggling significantly more. We will need to be acutely sensitive to the lived realities of our (clients’) customers and prospective customers. 

We will need to ensure we are deploying methodologies that get beneath the surface of topics – such as financial vulnerability – that could be covered over with layers of shame and anxiety. We will need to ensure we are not excluding the voices of the customers that are removing themselves from our brands’ orbits, perhaps never to return.

The encouraging thing is we are already making great strides as an industry across all the above. That was abundantly clear to me in reviewing a wide range of awards submissions recently, which showcased strategic partnership between client and agency teams; forward-thinking methodologies creatively applied; thoughtful fusions of behavioural economics, cultural insight and advanced analytics, and much more.

It is just that our turbulent world will demand more of us in our work – to be agile, to be resilient, to be anticipatory. To do more of what we are already doing as an industry so brilliantly. To dial it up and be confident in the strategic value we are so well placed to bring, which will be needed more than ever.

The last quarter of 2022 is going to be interesting. Brace yourselves.

Louise McLaren is managing director at Lovebrands