by Marguerite Coetzee. Each generation is born into a different time, with its own set of challenges, opportunities, and shared experiences. This temporal consideration — among many other factors — plays a role in how someone might respond to a crisis.

A global generational war is brewing over the novel coronavirus. Or so it seems. Some preach the severity of the situation (often older people), while others continue with life as usual (many younger people). There are even those who act in purposeful defiance, like attending corona parties. Where is the difference in reaction coming from? It boils down to three elements that are playing out in different ways: physical distancing, cognitive dissonance, and social solidarity.

Myopia: A forgotten past

On the phone with my grandmother, before South Africa officially went into a three-week lockdown, she told me to ensure I have the following:

  1. Food
  2. A radio
  3. Puzzles

My grandmother was born in a small Karoo town in 1931, and so was raised during the Great Depression and World War II. She’d lived through scarcity, uncertainty, and boredom. Her advice for covid-19 supplies spoke to the need for sustenance (food), information (radio), and entertainment (puzzles). She’d lived through this scenario before, and has been able to adapt. However, many aren’t, whether it’s not having a similar frame of reference against which they can make judgments, or not wanting to return to a state of limitation, or not being afforded the privilege of making drastic changes to their current lifestyle, or even simply not wanting to give up their freedom of choice.

We need to understand change from multiple perspectives, and not make assumptions. In times like these, brands and businesses need to consider multiple possibilities and prepare several solutions to meet the population’s new and varied needs.

Dystopia: An apocalyptic reality

Sohail Inayatullah’s framework for thinking about the future is useful in understanding where we are right now, and where we need to be to make it through a crisis. The framework is divided into six foundational concepts:

  1. A used future is the act of transplanting a trajectory or plan from another spatial-temporal context in the hopes that it would be applicable here, too. For example, we can’t look at the impact of covid-19 on Italy and assume it will play out the same in South Africa.
  2. A disowned future is the result of being so caught up in being better or faster. Instead of remembering to pause and reflect and bring different elements into harmony, a disowned future is the result of a constant drive to evolve at the expense of something else. For example, businesses which are driven by profit during a pandemic and forget about the wellbeing of their employees will later face a loss in productivity and loyalty.
  3. An alternative future requires an open mind to see the possibility of multiple outcomes that would help reduce uncertainty and surprises. For example, a brand that doesn’t get stuck on the idea of one path forward but considers different outcomes is more likely to be better prepared for whatever happens next.
  4. Alignment is when the approach, strategy, context and vision are interdependent and connected. For example, a business that aligns its day-to-day operations with a long-term goal, as well as the bigger picture of what is happening in the world, is more likely to make it through a crisis.
  5. Social change requires a shift in attitude from bleak to positive and from cynical to hopeful. For example, if your brand becomes a voice of and platform for optimism, you can instil positive change and hope among your audience and community.
  6. Uses of the future refers to creating conditions conducive for a paradigm shift by challenging, deconstructing, empowering and liberating that which is stuck, broken, or needing to change. For example, there is a quote by Dave Hollis going around: “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to”. What can your brand or business change within itself, and which parts are worth bringing into the new world?

Utopia: An imaginary future

Oscar Wilde considered progress to be the realisation of utopias. Many literary and philosophical theorists believe that a utopia is more revealing of the time in which it was formulated than of what people actually imagine would occur in the future. If, today, people dream of a future where there’s an abundance of natural resources and an elimination of inequality, this is a reflection of our present reality where we experience shortage and disparity. What could South Africa’s utopia look like?


Cognitive dissonance is the psychological experience of feeling disoriented and uncomfortable when things don’t seem familiar or when they change. When we experience cognitive dissonance, we tend to look for certainty. This plays out in different ways for different people. Brands can offer that sense of familiarity, surety, and connection that people are looking for in a time of uncertainty, disruption, and disconnect.

So what?

The past is the realm of certainty, while the future is the realm of uncertainty. Instead of attempting to ‘predict’ the future, we should aim to imagine possible and preferred futures. We can’t change the past but we do have a level of influence over the future we create. Brands and businesses have the opportunity and responsibility to create change.

Now what?

How do we want to be remembered during this time? What is the future we will be creating or contributing towards? Three South African brands that have adapted to the situation and are leading the way include:

  1. Nando’s — Your place, not ours (for now)
  2. South African Tourism: Don’t travel now, so you can travel later
  3. Pick n Pay: drive-through shopping on Whatsapp

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See also


Marguerite de Villiers Marguerite Coetzee is a senior strategist at Instant Grass International and an anthropologist, artist and futurist who provides research and insight services through Omniology. “Curiosity“, the latest series in her regular column on MarkLives, explores the hidden and obscure histories, stories, and experiences of things in South Africa.

This MarkLives #CoronavirusSA special section contains coverage of how the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its resultant disease, covid-19, is affecting the advertising, marketing and related industries in South Africa and other parts of Africa, and how we are responding. Updates may be sent to us via our contact form or the email address published on our Contact Us page. Opinion pieces/guest columns must be exclusive.

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