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Inertia had stifled creative innovation, COVID-19 has accelerated it

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The coronavirus pandemic has brought a host of unimaginable changes into everyone's lives. Things that were ordinary have become temporarily extraordinary, and vice versa in some cases. Some, like retailers, have had to sustain more crippling blows than others, but most businesses were found in the same, difficult situation to ask their government for help.

It is just plain unbelievable. But among all these negative aspects of the pandemic, our Coronavirus Survey has found out that there is a glimpse of hope coming from the creative industries and it looks like someone is starting to pick up the trend. We've had a chat with the CEO of Rehab agency, Rob Bennett, who argues that COVID-19 has actually accelerated innovation.


Rob Bennett, CEO of Rehab agency

Has COVID-19 accelerated innovation?

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has been a devastating force. It’s affected just about every aspect of our lives - people, communities and economies alike. If one silver lining is to come from this terrible situation, it’s that innovation has been accelerated. New, big problems are being solved in incredibly small time frames. The reality is that some practices, businesses, and ways of thinking have become outdated overnight.

We have been forced to change in ways we’d not quite imagined and the ‘what we’ve always done’ mindset is well and truly exposed as the fallacy we all know it to be. Take working in an office for example. It seemed an unquestionable aspect of work at the start of 2020, but those big (in some case very big!) overheads are coming under increasing scrutiny. Barclays bosses have already said that big offices as we know them may be a ‘thing of the past’. They’ll not be the last.


Photo by Sinelab

Rapid change is coming, and leaders are (or should be) preparing to harness the creativity and problem solving that will fuel and accelerate the growth that this will bring. It’s on the government agenda as well, with a £1.25bn support package recently announced for ‘innovative’ businesses. 

There are countless companies that claim to be innovative, that have talked a good game of digitalisation, but have ultimately sat on the sideline to avoid the risk of real change. They should be worried. For every business or industry, there are always better and more creative ways of doing things and someone, somewhere is thinking about that, right now. 

In the last few weeks we’ve seen innovation from companies of all shapes and sizes: Facebook providing businesses the opportunity to sell DTC on the platform; Nike using Travis Scott’s Fortnite gig as a promotional platform for their new shoes; and the sausage roll seller on Herne Hill market who’s using WhatsApp to deliver food to his customers. These examples are obviously at different points of the spectrum, but nicely illustrate the point that innovation is, simply put, thinking of new and better ways of doing something

New challenges in our day-to-day lives

The way we live our lives is changing on a weekly basis and creativity has never been more important in helping us improve the way we work and live to overcome the challenges this brings. 

At home - our latent behavioural and social needs have not gone away and a pandemic certainly won’t stop us wanting a drink with our mates. We’ve flocked en masse to video and Houseparty recently saw 50m sign-ups in a month - 70x above what they would consider normal.

From a creative perspective, I’ve seen a huge number of musicians, art teachers and yoga studios moving to remote lessons, and the figures around furloughed staff picking up e-Learning courses to upskill and diversify are equally huge. Online education company Coursera now has 56m users worldwide, up from 40m last year.

Rapid change is coming, and leaders are (or should be) preparing to harness the fuel of this new growth

And what about our own personal creative pursuits? The Washington Post asked their readers about how they’ve used their time under lockdown and found that people were tackling creative pursuits, more than ever. In turn, this will have huge implications in the business world. 

Uber, Whatsapp, Groupon, Pinterest, Slack, Google Ventures and Warby Parker all materialised within a year or so of the 2008 financial crisis - arguably the last major global incident which forced businesses to innovate, to change, and to think differently or fail. Think about that. Some of the world's biggest brands were created in a time of huge hardship. Incredibly inspiring. 

Rehab is seeing the creative impact of the pandemic in the workplace already. We have used products like Mural internally for ages, but our clients are now using these tools with us and loving the newfound ability to collaborate. They are experiencing what agency creatives have come to expect as ‘normal’, and the impact of this thinking and ‘new’ way of working will be huge. 

More interestingly, due to forced ways of working, the introverts and the extroverts are now equally comfortable to have their say and it’s fascinating to see how this is impacting the creative process.


Photo: Torpedo

Were brands prepared?

The virus has overseen the biggest rapid cultural shift from a singular event since the second world war and nobody was fully prepared. 

It’s forced industries to innovate, to be ‘agile’ and to rewrite the rules because traditional ways of thinking do not apply to the conditions and pressures of a global change. From a creative perspective, it’s not just the visual messaging, content and campaign planning that is having a creative rethink. Business strategies are being written (and rewritten) on the fly

How many last mile delivery services were being eyed up by brands before the COVID pandemic? Some, I would think. But significantly more focus will be on this type of service now as customer demand, coupled with public health restrictions, is forcing businesses to think creatively in terms of how they meet the changing customer need.

I recently read about Co-Op partnering with Buymie, a start up delivery service allowing Co-Op customers to order through the Buymie app and receive a delivery within an hour. A very interesting, if not unexpected development in the grocery sector and I’m sure we’ll see this become commonplace.

Some of the world's biggest brands were created in a time of huge hardship

There are also big shifts happening in the entertainment space, and Fortnite, again, is a great example having recently launched the “Party Royale”. With no weapons, users don’t need to worry about defending themselves within the game, they can simply enjoy live events – in the most recent case, a Diplo gig. This is a very clear signal of Fortnite’s desire to become more than a game and seen as a virtual hangout space. This is a pretty smart move, especially during lockdown when everyone is looking for safe ways to hangout with their mates.

This opens up an entirely new realm of thought as brands will, and already have, started looking at how they can leverage digital experiences to build their brand, stay relevant, and ultimately connect in entirely new ways. How will fashion brands respond to the trend? Could this be the year when we see Surpreme’s approach to clothing drops be realised in the digital world?

Do new consumer behaviours benefit smaller companies? 

By mid-March, 60% of 18-34 year olds in the UK had increased their usage of food delivery services due to COVID-19, which saw companies like Hello Fresh seeing a 66.4% YOY revenue increase. 

People very quickly realised that such services can provide a better experience than travelling to the supermarket and the bigger retail and FMCG companies will have to react fast to meet this change in behaviour. Late adopting or laggard businesses that were resisting D2C or ecommerce models are now caught out and must ask themselves how their business will meet demand and address new behaviours.

Some are already doing so. Heinz, who has recently launched a direct-to-consumer service called ‘Heinz To Home’ in the UK, has identified the trend and pivoted, or accelerated their focus to meet it. Others are not so quick to respond, and we will almost certainly see the fall of some ‘staple’ household names over the next few months. 


Photo: AKQA

Adapting products and services to help consumers

In coping with the pandemic, one of the most (of many) inspiring outcomes has been how big and small companies alike have worked to adapt products and services that genuinely help people, or provide something useful - showing the ability to innovate across the board.

Some smaller companies have been nimble enough to change their approach to stay afloat, with local shops now selling online or restaurant wholesalers now delivering directly to consumers. Large companies have also seized the moment to play their part - with companies like gaming accessory maker Razer pivoting their manufacturing process to help with the demand of PPE, and Hasbro has created a brand new product line for parents working at home with children. Their president has even commented on how the situation has helped them embrace new ideas and new opportunities. The question is - will these innovative mindsets outlast the needs of the pandemic?


Photo: Samsung

What next?

The situation of the pandemic has forced a rapid change in consumer behaviour and the mindsets of small and large companies alike, the result of which has seen a multitude of business practices become outdated in a heartbeat. Agile startups have been given a clear opportunity to gain ground and market share from the incumbent businesses, whilst big, established businesses must embrace genuine innovation in order to survive. 

Rehab helps accelerate change at large organisations, and has seen firsthand how much of an impact innovation can have, whether it’s new, creative uses of technology, or no-code approaches to prototyping to help reduce risk and accelerate creativity. We hope that after this pandemic, these industries that have quickly adopted new ways of thinking due to the short-term current circumstances, will continue to keep these innovative mindsets long-term. 

After all, businesses shouldn’t slow down. They should take it up a gear.

Rob Bennett is the CEO at Rehab agency. Header image: Daniel Hurrell.


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