More Than a Pivot: Why Brands Need to Embrace Fluidity

Finding a path to a new normal through understanding and openness

Looking back over the 2010s, it's easy to argue that "pivot" was the word of the decade for many brands. Publishing, TV, retail and even food and hospitality all shifted a large amount of real estate online as Amazon transformed itself into an omnipresent commercial behemoth; new media disruptors like Mic, Vice and BuzzFeed all turned toward video and investigative reporting; tech unicorns like Slack grew out of gaming startups; and many started a podcast.

And now, with international upheaval driving a wild crash landing into the 2020s, brands have been under more pressure than ever to quickly and easily be able to shift their services, products and strategies to respond directly to the unprecedented concerns of this new decade. The fall-out of Covid-19, the global lockdown and universal social unrest have all seen a demand for systems and organizations of all kinds to change quickly and nimbly, for both business and humanitarian survival.

As we slowly plan for our eventual shift to a new post-pandemic normal, what now?

We're living in turbulent times where the way brands respond and react to what's going on in the world is make or break. Moving forward, brands will need to be ready to work with wherever their audience shifts in an authentic and sustainable way. And that's not a pivot—which evokes the a rigid, no-turning-back-now sensation. It's something softer, nimbler and more attuned to going with the flow of the future.

This growing adaptability is reflective of a wider trend in global culture as a whole: fluidity. From gender and sexuality, to flexitarianism, to augmented reality and the "death of genre" in music, a fluid experience and approach to the world is the real "new normal."

Fluidity is a particular nuance and working philosophy, whereas the pivot is more of a specific, reactionary tactic. But the two go hand in hand: To pivot freely, it helps to operate in a fluid way, both internally within an organization and externally in how we consider the needs of customers.

Forming organizational fluidity

In turn, fluidity favors the generalist, which is one key factor helping to cultivate these behaviors across organizations. The more interdisciplinary staff and teams are internally, the easier and more frequently change can be to navigate. 

David Epstein explores this idea in his recent book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. There, he discusses the myths of early specialization, the virtues of interdisciplinary training, and how thinking laterally actually improves creativity.

And a fluid creative approach is good for business, too, even where hierarchy still reigns supreme. A 2020 LinkedIn study drew connections between employee experience, retention and success with the vitality of soft skills including creative and interdisciplinary mindsets. Meanwhile, Harvard Business Review has reported those who performed the most different kinds of job functions across an organization made them more likely to have success up, while those with shoehorned specializations were more likely to stay put.

We should allow that polymathic way of thinking, deciding and behaving to happen more freely across our organizations and businesses if we want to be able to adapt to unexpected futures.

Rethinking conventions

The global and business landscapes are changing. Adapting to them is critical, and even harder for organizations built on rigidity and immovable systems. But fluidity can be embraced and grown internally by responding to what people actually care about.

That doesn't mean brands should simply address what people want and lack a POV. It means they need to fluidly adapt to the way people are navigating the world, and forge those connections around them. 

Look at MoMA, which last year reorganized its permanent collection, rethinking conventions and classifications while updating the traditional experience of an art museum to embrace the fluid nature of the next generation of art lovers.

Instead of organizing in the traditional ways—by art movement, or media, or even geography or era—MoMA removed "the isms and ists" from its curation strategy. So instead of seeing The Starry Night in a Dutch post-impressionism section, the painting is currently surrounded by ceramics and sculptures that help to communicate the idea of seeing the world differently.

This is fluidity in full form: a heritage organization using its love of art history and future-forward internal alignment to rethink the overall experience, based on how cultural consumption is behaving and what its audience is looking for.

Being of the here and now, and adapting fluidly, doesn't mean racing to do something first—it means opening up the mind to do what makes sense contextually. Culture, and the fluidity required to understand it, is not a competition—it's not disruption for disruption's sake, or hopping on the bandwagon. Successful innovators like Apple are known for being the second or third out of the gate, for just that reason.

Depth of understanding

Returning to the present moment, many brands with fluid approaches have provided a look into addressing unexpected issues while remaining true to their core principles, proving, like MoMA, that any semblance of institutional thinking or process needs is worth re-evaluating during these times. 

The Copenhagen-based renowned Noma recently did a complete about-face, transitioning its identity from one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world to a successful outdoor burger pop-up. Understanding global visitors weren't coming, and that locals wanted a less intimidating, less physically confining experience, they were able to easily provide something new.  

Dyson, too. Their culture is all about self-invention, innovation and egalitarianism. It served them well when they worked around the clock to develop an entirely new medical ventilator in 30 days. By identifying a need and recognizing that their skills could provide a solution, the brand successfully intubated a business they weren't even a part of through fluid thinking.

One quality all these brands share, as well as the countless others that have risen to the occasion, is the depth of understanding around people and culture. Coupled with a fluid mindset, this level of understanding enables brands to act quickly to meet human needs and survive unexpected situations.

We're living in a new normal, likely forever, and that means we'll need to be open to constant unexpected adaptations, and that brands should be questioning not only what their purpose is but how that purpose can expand to meet the rapidly changing nature of our world.

Further dimension

Today, fluidity is something we're seeing pervade every aspect of our lives. From social cliques, to gender to genre—and, as we've seen, in the way businesses relate to the changing world around them. The distinctions that once defined differences are beginning to blur, and to me, that's exciting. It means creativity gets to play a bigger role than ever before.

We are not "going back to normal." As creatives and brand experts, we are relearning our own livelihoods—and this is an opportunity for things to get better, to embrace fluidity to create a new normal through understanding and openness.

It will push creatives to work differently, more innovatively, more freely than ever before. To understand everything better and more closely. 

Because people and the world are evolving to have more dimension, to think laterally and in depth, rather than just vertically and upward. And that's why fluidity matters. Because once we allow ourselves to think and exist through that lens, we will be at our fullest, our most prepared, our most resilient.

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Daniel Edmundson
Daniel Edmundson is strategy director at Gretel.

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