Philip McKenzie: Starcom's recently published "Forces of Change: A COVID-19 Update" is a consumer report that covers trends in technology, audio, and media but is very much defined by its examination of the human experience. What was the thinking in that approach?

Kathy Kline: Starcom is the Human Experience Company, so we apply a people/human-centric led perspective to everything that we do. Given the overwhelming number of available trend reports out there, our human-centric approach is a meaningful way that we distinguish ourselves. We always ground our analysis with a human lens. We want to know how these forces are impacting people and coloring their brand experience. In our thinking, the trends identified in the report are quite literally forces of change that are being acted out by people around the world.

McKenzie: Throughout the report, the word "tension" comes up quite often.

Kline: Exploring "tension" is one of the focal points of the report. We believe there is often a tension that exists between people and brands. Tension is core to both our philosophy and our approach at Starcom, it informs our overall point of view and is built into our planning philosophy. The gap between what people want and what brands need to do to succeed is how we define tension. With so much change in the world will we see an increase or reduction in tension between people and brands? There are times when a brand is very much aligned with people's desires, wants, and needs, and there are other times when that is askew. So our examination of tension is to determine whether that friction is an opportunity and what solutions we can offer.

McKenzie: In your viewpoint, is tension only negative or are there positive or natural tensions that exist between people and brands?

Kline: Inherently, I think tension manifests as a challenge because, on some level, we are noting a misalignment, right? Friction existing between people and a brand isn't great. Once we identify what the tension is, we can focus and resolve it. We want to use media to reduce tension and create experiences that close that gap. Our work and expertise allows us to uncover those opportunities and find solutions for people and brands.

McKenzie: COVID -19 has changed everything, and it has allowed you to revisit your report and make adjustments based on the new reality. What are some changes that are particularly relevant?

Kline: We had done extensive research and defined 11 core tensions that existed between people and brands. As COVID-19 entered the picture, we identified a new tension that had not been seen in developed markets: lack of availability or product scarcity. Eating at your favorite restaurant, buying toilet paper or other staples like eggs, milk, and flour are now difficult to find or completely unattainable.

We also see an acceleration of some of the trends we identify in the Forces of Change report. As people seek both information about the pandemic and distraction, sources of content are increasingly relevant to their consumption habits. Trends in audio have accelerated as people are listening to more radio, podcasts, and streaming music while we are sheltering in place. We see a rise in what we are calling the Audio Identity as people are expressing their values and interest via their listening habits. The proliferation of video is also accelerating as we are streaming and binge-watching for entertainment like never before. But even there you see tension as brands are challenged to scale as the significant anchor events like sports, festivals, and major film releases have all but disappeared with social distancing. So in some cases, these accelerating trends are increasing tension due to COVID-19.

McKenzie: Do you think some of the tension we see at this moment is between discovery and nostalgia?

Kline: I think you are seeing that acting out in what we called Extreme Choices/Extreme Culture. Instead of seeking out and engaging with the more extreme ends of the curves, people are seeking out the more familiar middle. Big mainstream brands and products like packaged cereal, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Campbell's soup are all seeing significant gains. One of the other forces of change we identified was Self-Care and Wellness Trojan Horse, which has taken on new dimensions because we are thinking about practices like washing our hands, wearing PPE and social distancing, as well as more traditional wellness activities. Some of these health and wellness practices weren't even on our radar a few months ago. So I think there's a fair amount of discovery happening. Human beings are incredibly flexible, adaptive and are evolving their lives with new digital tools and services for both work and entertainment.

McKenzie: What advice would you give to a brand that is seeking to navigate the pandemic successfully?

Kline: Our advice would be to understand people deeply and think about how you can meet people on their terms while providing real value. That general philosophy is even more critical now. Brands should think about laddering down rather than laddering up. Typically we think of going higher up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to create the highest emotional benefit you can credibly associate your brand with. But right now, people are concerned with more basic needs of sustenance, safety, and family. We have to pay attention to where people's heads and hearts are, and I suspect they are at a more fundamental level. The message from financial institutions is about insurance and loan forgiveness. A large chain like Domino's is promoting its contactless delivery capability. Brands are living and thriving in that essential concrete fundamental space right now.

McKenzie: For the reader who gets their hands on the Forces of Change report, what key takeaways you would recommend?

Kline: I think marketers must make sure their vision is squarely through a human lens. The pandemic is impacting how people live their lives and how they interact with brands as a result. Identify and explore where tension exists in the people - brand relationship and then determine the best opportunity to add value. Our industry is not immune to the broader societal challenges, and we have to match the adaptability of our clients and the public.

To hear Starcom's leaders discuss the Forces of Change report, watch Publicis Media's recent LinkedIn Live episode "Forces of Change in a COVID-19 World."