Phrases like “medium-term” and “intermediate-term” have been lost from our business lexicon, it seems. According to Google Trends, searches for these keyphrases have declined 50% or more in the past 15 years. But 2020 is going to be the year intermediate-term planning becomes necessary. Now is an excellent time to consider what that may mean for preparing and managing your business for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back when I went to school, we spoke of timeframes such as ten years for long-term planning and five years for intermediate-term, but with the pace of change in recent decades, ten years feels a bit like planning for the next century. Who can anticipate that far ahead in a world where a new technology or competitor can swiftly arise and destabilize a marketplace? With our planning horizons collapsed, it can feel as if much of our business and marketing planning has been reduced to just two horizons: What we need to get done now (short-term) and what we must do to prepare for where we hope to be in three to five years (long-term). There’s little room for the intermediate-term in a business environment that changes fast and demands agility.
COVID-19 Here and Now
But, if we thought the pace of change was hectic in recent years, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is forcing business to react at a breakneck speed. It may seem hard to believe, but the first US case of unknown origin stemming from “community spread” was announced less than a month ago (on February 26). As I type this, it’s been just 11 days since the NBA suspended its season. The US passed 5,000 cases less than a week ago, and by the time you read this, the tally of known COVID-19 cases in the US will likely be more than 30,000.
At unprecedented speed, many brands have been quick to react with care and empathy. Banks have raced to suspend late penalties and early-withdrawal fees, many brands are offering assistance to customers, and some employers have made commitments to workers adversely impacted by furloughs and reduced hours. These immediate and short-term reactions have been admiral and have helped to minimize the blow to many anxious people.
Build COVID-19 Scenarios for Business and Marketing
But what’s next? It is no exaggeration to say that no one can say. There is simply too much that is unknown (including the actual number of infections and how well the COVID-19 mitigation efforts are working in different locations). To show just how little we really know, a survey of infectious disease researchers conducted March 16 and 17 found the consensus forecast of expected cases in the US for March 29 was roughly 19,000; in fact, the US exceeded that number just days after the survey was conducted. (Of course, in a rapidly growing pandemic, reporting is quite variable; as I type this the CDC website, last updated Friday, currently shows 15,219 confirmed cases in the US, while the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard shows 27,004 and Worldometer is reporting 29, 214.)
If the most knowledgeable infectious experts can’t predict the future with accuracy, neither can you. This is why the best minds in public health, epidemiology, and disease modelers are considering a range of possible scenarios. You must, too.
The Gartner for Marketers team of analysts and advisors have recommended our clients develop COVID-19 scenarios (subscription required) to help plan for a range of possible outcomes. Any single scenario will get it wrong in meaningful ways that could leave your company and its brands unprepared. Instead, weigh a spectrum of potential situations ranging from best- to worst-case. That way, you can prepare the actions, communications, and data you need and be prepared to act in any circumstance. The key to exiting reactive mode and protecting your brand is to prepare now for every plausible development.
You may predicate one of your scenarios upon a best-case outcome that involves the US and other nations getting the situation controlled by summer with a rapid return to BAU (business as usual). But, it’s vital you also consider much longer and more challenging scenarios. Some news reports and studies suggest that people, governments, and companies will need to struggle throughout 2020 to keep COVID-19 growth.
Plan for Short-, Intermediate- and Long-Term COVID-19 Outcomes
To validate why a three-horizon plan that includes an intermediate-term view is necessary, let’s review the latest COVID-19 analysis. Last week, the Imperial College London published a scientific report outlining a variety of possible outcomes based on its complex models. One epidemiologist said the study was the most likely scenario produced on the current pandemic and suggested the American public should expect a challenging 18 months. Others, including Bill Gates, who has been a leader in public health philanthropy and for years warned of the dangers of a global pandemic, said the study’s parameters were too negative. In its COVID-19 Response Plan, the Department of Health & Human Services outlines its assumptions, which include “A pandemic will last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness.” Finally, that previously mentioned survey of infectious disease experts asked about the possibility of a second wave of infections in Fall, and most found that likely.
Suffice to say, the situation is and will remain volatile for a while, and this is where we must return to a discussion of intermediate-term planning. Thus far, it seems many business and marketing leaders have planned for two COVID-19 horizons: A short-term period of quarantines, restrictions, social distancing, and other mitigation efforts, followed by a period of recovery. You should survey all the available research and data and come to your conclusions, but the latest analysis would argue for a three-horizon plan in your worst-case scenarios:
- Short-term: Your business is already dealing with the short-term impact of consumers, businesses, and employees affected by the pandemic. You can expect this period of disruption to continue for some period as more US governments implement restrictions and the number of infections escalates.
- Intermediate-term: Your worst-case scenarios should not assume an immediate recovery once the short-term period is complete. Instead, your marketing and business plan must consider the impact of an extended period of disruptions. There is no clear consensus on what these may be since nations will work to find the proper balance between COVID-19 mitigation and impact to lives and the economy. Some experts, including those who worked on the Imperial College study, foresee alternating periods of loosened and tightened restrictions. Thus, your intermediate-term view should prepare for all possible outcomes, including potential intermittent or constant workplace disruptions, event cancelations, travel impact, and voluntary or enforced social distancing.
- Long-term: At some point, the world and nation will shift into recovery mode. Your scenarios should identify the triggers that indicate your organization must change from a cautious to an assertive stance. This stage must consider how rapidly consumer and buyer optimism will return, how COVID-19 may impact future values, needs, and expectations, and what your organization can learn from this period to prepare for future, unexpected disruptions, big and small.
BAU may not be BAU for quite some time, and when we return to BAU, it might not look like BAU in 2019. No one can tell you with certainty what can happen, so the business and marketing leaders that best prepare for an uncertain and rapidly evolving future are the ones who act now for a range of possible scenarios. Plan for a breadth of short-, intermediate- and long-term situations to be ready for anything that may come.
What is your business doing to build scenarios for 2020, and do you have any perspective of what business and marketing leaders might expect? If so, please share in the comments below!