Business Unusual: The Pandemic Forces a Social Reset – MIT Sloan

Our summer 2022 issue addresses C-suite turnover, end user AI anxiety, and employee motivation.
Our summer 2022 issue addresses C-suite turnover, end user AI anxiety, and employee motivation.
In a highly polarized and flammable political climate, brands have to play an active role in society well beyond their commercial remit.
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Commerce, as traditional economists see it, is a theater where rational and impersonal actors transact, exchanging goods and services for payment. The burgeoning field of behavioral economics has taught us that these actors are not rational, and since March 2020, we’ve learned that these actors aren’t impersonal, either. They are human, and this tremendous acceleration of a human-centric mindset in commerce is one of the defining forces that will shape business strategy for the foreseeable future.
In the long months since the pandemic first struck, humanity has taken a hard look inward. We’ve seen it in the weary faces of health care workers, in the throngs gathered to demand equity for the marginalized, and in the depth of profound suffering worldwide. Once, we were comfortably numb, buying cheaper, bigger, better; now, the pandemic has wrought grief and trauma, and the introspection it has prompted has exposed our fragility.
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The pandemic has changed us, and now we seek more from commerce. We expect fulfillment, not just consumption. We expect the brands we patronize to be not just manufacturers and retailers but active, helpful contributors to our society. In this transition lies one of the most significant resets for the modern brand. This new social reset is uncharted territory for most companies that now find themselves having to navigate new customer and employee expectations. They are being forced to see their stakeholders differently — as consumers who don’t just acquire products but have more complex needs, and as employees who don’t just contribute labor but hitch their identity to the brand. As if that weren’t enough, now consumers expect brands to play an active role in society well beyond their commercial remit.
The pandemic has changed us, and now we seek more from commerce. We expect fulfillment, not just consumption.
In a highly polarized and flammable political climate, brands have to play a sociopolitical version of the arcade game whack-a-mole, constantly swatting at a multitude of issues that pop up with dogged persistence. Rather than responding reflexively, brands should be deliberate in their choice of action.
Don’t be reactive. Resist the pressure to react to every provocation, especially when a response is not warranted. (See below for when it is.)
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Dipanjan Chatterjee is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, where he leads the brand strategy research practice. He is also a fellow at the Kautz-Uible Economics Institute at the University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business.
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