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The Unanchored Era
Back to POV

The Unanchored Era

By Jeff Hahn

What is the orienting theory our agency uses to guide clients? It turns out, it’s actually centered on leveraging everything that’s disorienting. I tell clients we are living in an “Unanchored Era.” It is a time in which assumptions are being upended. The things we used to depend on as a given, can no longer be taken for granted.

After nearly 50 years, for example, women in the U.S. assumed access to abortion was a healthcare right. The Supreme Court said it is not. Another example: For 234 years, the peaceful transfer of governmental power was an assumed dignity enshrined in the constitution. January 6, 2021, blew that notion to pieces.

In a way, Mark Twain gave us a warning about making assumptions when he said, “I was educated once – it took me years to get over it.” His point for us today is that we need to learn, unlearn, and relearn continuously because very little is certain or stable or enduring.

Think about how destabilized the pandemic has made us feel. The same sensation grips us whenever we’re reading about the kinkiness of the global supply chain, climate change, and even crypto currency. The existence of crypto currency itself is a signal from one corner of the world, that confidence in our banking system is teetering. We’re feeling squeezed by tightening monetary policy. Our trust in the media is low. Our trust in politicians is lower. Even what were the most trusted institutions for generations –– universities and churches –– are in question.

The bad news is all around us. The only good news is that we’ve been here before. The 1970s, it turns out, is a useful mirror for the 2020s. Just a few comparisons make the point:

  • Defeated in Vietnam then; depleted by COVID-19 now.
  • Stagflation then; inflation, especially in food and energy now.
  • Social unrest from Kent State to Wounded Knee then; mass shootings to the Great Resignation now.

What is a brand manager to do in the midst of all this? The magnitude of ambiguity brands experience today can be gauged by the depth of the questions they’re asking us –– and they sound like this: What is happening in the mind of the consumer? How should we concentrate our marketing spends for best effect? In this uncertain time, what steps can we take to burn down risk?

My advice is to stop looking over the horizon for silver bullet solutions and someday promises. In the Unanchored Era, we’re adrift, metaphorically speaking, so it’s best to look for safe harbor in nearby ports.

Have you seen the movie, Apollo 13? My favorite line comes toward the end of the film when Jim Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, steps in to settle a dispute by saying, “…there’s 1,000 things that have to happen in order, we are on number 8. You’re talking about number 692.” Lovell’s notion is key to answering the questions above. If we take them one at a time, in the right sequence, the questions that spawn mysteries without any clues, are solvable puzzles.

It helps to start with history. Patterns and trends do seem to have a way of repeating themselves so can be instructive. Today, however, sophisticated analytics as well as predictive models and visualizations used in smart combinations, are the essential tools we need to tack successfully into the future. Data is the chronometer. Insights are the compass.

Yes, time-warping back into the 1970s is a challenge but here’s really great news: Just as the 1980s was a decade of massive renewal, the 2030’s are not far off. To get ahead of the rush, I’m ordering Members Only jackets for our data science team.


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