Fight, flight or freeze: Marketing lessons from the pandemic

My Understatement of the Year award submission: it’s been quite the year.


Hands up if you’re feeling stressed, tired, or overwhelmed? Maybe all three?


Last week’s Thanksgiving celebrations in the US reminded me it’s healthy to look beyond ourselves to others, and remember to be grateful.


We live with what psychologists call cognitive dissonance - two conflicting or inconsistent ideas held simultaneously. Few of us find the experience particularly comfortable.


This dissonance feels even more even more spiky as we slide, stumble or crawl towards Christmas, holidays, NYE celebrations and 2021. Pandemic status is far from gone, but in Australia at least it feels like we can breathe a little bit (even if it’s behind masks).


Yes, we’re thankful for health, family, friends, and with so many people losing their jobs in this season, even our work seems sweeter. At the same time, marketing in 2020 could be summarised with one word: uncertainty.


So, how can we balance uncertainty and gratefulness?


This week, I’d like to unpack this idea and think about 2021. What will it feel like, and what will matter? Ready? Stay with me, it’ll be cathartic!


How it all went down


I’ll never forget those first few weeks in early April. Lockdown was kicking in for the first time. Almost every day, a different client got in touch with the dreaded phone call. It wasn’t us, it was them, they commiserated. Budgets were snap frozen, the business was in crisis mode and they needed to completely reset priorities.


As the CEO of a marketing agency, I’ll be honest with you - it was harrowing. How many clients would pause spending? How many of our staff would be affected? Anyone in leadership knows the acute weight of being the source of jobs, rent and mortgage payments, and livelihoods for the families of your staff who depend on you having a profitable business.


We didn’t know everything, but we did know one thing: the global pandemic wasn’t going away quickly and marketing spend wouldn’t return quickly, either.


Looking back on my conversations with clients, friends and guests on The CMO Show during that initial lockdown phase, most responded in one of three ways to the crisis: fight, flee or freeze. A metaphor for the latter is when you jump into icy cold water. You’re in shock and can barely breathe. What was your response?


From shock to say something


“These uncertain times.” It was a catchphrase that went viral in April. Every brand, it seemed, was attempting to empathise with customers. COVID-19 commercials started rolling out with the same familiar approach: soft piano music, empty streets and sympathetic voiceovers.


The Wall Street Journal was one of many publications that caught the mood, picking up on a viral video by a digital marketer who connected the dots in this video: “Every COVID-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same”.


To be fair, the intent was good. Show empathy, help people, recognise everything is changing, promote and normalise the idea that we must stay at home.


Thankfully, global creatives took note and moved us forward.


The big shift


The next moment worth noting is when we collectively realised our work-life balance, whatever that is, was changing for good.


As we all raced into replacing real-world meetings with Zoom and virtual events, something important dawned on the global community of marketers, comms professionals and creatives.


All of us, including marketers, have day jobs. When you’re working and living at home, it changes everything. We lost the third space - that moment of solitude in the car or on public transport - between the home and office. Everything jammed together in a giant mess of homeschooling, food deliveries, preoccupation with a 24 hour pandemic news cycle and gradual acceptance that your dog/cat/children/spouse/home delivery would inevitably break into your meeting at the worst possible moment.


We laughed, talked about how crazy it was, and quietly wondered if it would ever go away.


The quote that captured this moment for me arrived during a virtual event I was facilitating for Sage. We were talking about the future of work, and Rhonda Brighton-Hall, Founder & CEO of Making Work Absolutely Human (MWAH), dropped this line:


We have reset the psychological contract around work.


Cue virtual mic drop.


2021 and the search for purpose


In the past few weeks I couldn’t help but notice a resurgence of interest in a word that seems to build on this psychological contract idea: purpose.


A good example was the first day of Mumbrella 360: Reconnected, a virtual event for the marketing communications community. Almost an entire day was devoted to the topic.


Like all trends in marketing, this one has come and gone many times under different disguises, most notable corporate social responsibility.


It’s a big idea that taps into a subconscious feeling many of us have buried until the pandemic forced purpose out into the bright, shiny spotlight. In marketing, we love telling stories that help brands connect with the real stuff of life, healthy communities and grand notions of self-improvement.


But if we dig a little deeper, I think the real story here is our universal search for meaning. It’s an idea I explored during a brand storytelling masterclass last week.


[add picture from the shoot]


I believe the purpose narrative will morph into meaning in 2021. Our psychological contract has indeed been reset and we want to know how we, as storytellers, can make a difference.


In fact, we want to be part of an organisation where everyone shares that same vision for change, positive impact and doing something good.


Your new mission


So here’s my challenge. We marketers, comms professionals, storytellers, journalists and creatives have a unique advantage. We can connect the dots between what we know customers truly want, and what the organisation is trying to achieve.


We’re customer advocates, but more importantly, internal champions who understand the value of uniting around a single cause. You see, everyone within an organisation at all levels and in all departments now wants to know how their role is connected to a greater good.


Organisations can no longer escape the social imperative: we’re all responsible for making the world a little bit better. We want meaningful roles within that grand narrative, even if we’re not clear about how it looks.


So there it is. The purpose story will morph into a greater narrative about meaning.


Sure, you’re tired and the last thing you need is some guy inspiring you to do more work! But even there, we have to be honest. Before we get busy again, one of the most meaningful things we can do is get some rest, reset and refocus.


Who’s with me?


Keep believing, meaningfully,







MARK JONES is a brand strategist, author and keynote speaker. His purpose is to inspire more people to use the power of storytelling to change their world for good, and has created a world-first storytelling framework for leaders to do so called Beliefonomics. Find out more at markhjones.net and subscribe to receive his weekly blog.

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Copyright 2020, Mark Jones