A White House engulfed in chaos – with aides to Trump and Pence testing positive – foreshadows a tricky path to reopening the US economy. Entire business sectors that just two months ago were selling popular products and services are literally frozen in place. It’s still unclear what can be revived, no matter what precautions are in place. But something else has happened in the meantime. Demand has collapsed.  Our government’s blunt categorization of businesses as either essential or non-essential has had the unintended effect of making all sorts of enterprises and offerings expendable, unnecessary. Extra.

Extras are what everyone is cutting out. Extras are the stuff you’ve realized you can do without. We used to consider many of these extras essentials. Or at least the fundamentals of normal life. Yet now few of us are planning a visit to the dentist, dermatologist or optometrist anytime soon. Car repairs? We’re not driving. Shopping for clothes (or just about anything but food)? To impress whom, and why now, when clothes will soon be discounted by 80 percent or simply thrown away or burned. Buying a new gizmo, gadget or bicycle…that can definitely wait. Social experiences like going to restaurants, bars, nightclubs, concerts, conventions – not happening. Professional Sports? Nope. Oh, and hot yoga just slipped into a major phase of downward dog. While we’re at it, now that we’ve seen our income and savings slashed, who can justify a gym membership?

Membership Models Under The Microscope

The old economic models no longer apply. For instance, three months ago the subscription or membership model was considered the secret to startup success. Monthly recurring revenue was the no-fail money-maker. Now everyone is combing through their credit cards and bills to cancel every possible subscription.

So far, most companies, especially those with membership models, don’t get it. Don’t yet comprehend how far they have to go to reinvent their offering. Take the example of our gym, the Bay Club, a vast network of gyms, golf clubs, and swim and tennis clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area. They’ve been blasting us with emails on how to stay fit at home during this extended shelter in place. But we were never the at-home exercise types, and instead decided to relocate pre-quarantine to an area where we can get plenty of exercise outdoors. We promptly put our gym memberships on hold, and are waiting for an incentive to go back.

Instead, all we’ve seen are a series of Zoom recordings detailing how they’re configuring for reopening. They released a document that sounded titled for their insurance underwriter: “Resuming Operations in California and the Pacific Northwest, A Strategic Plan by the Bay Club Company.

Woo Back Customers with Story and Design

What the Bay Club has so far failed to recognize is that they are not essential. The crisis has firmly moved gyms into the extra category. Sure, they have to show they are taking sanitization and social distancing to a new level, but the real challenge is to reinvent the gym experience, and woo us back with inspired, creative touches (the strategic plan was plodding and methodical, with photos showing how Safeway had implemented visual affordances marking appropriate social distancing). We would have preferred an attempt at Bay Club-branded graphic design, say, a mock-up of what the new clubs will look and feel like.

Give us a compelling reason to return to the gym – something new and improved, not simply the old environment sanitized and still scary. An attempt at collective excitement would have been a great start. Tell us a story. Walk us through the emotional reward that we’ll reap, that flood of endorphins we’ll get when we can finally swim in the pool again. Explain how you’ll help us achieve our goals by making the gym both safe and welcoming. Stand by us as we get our bodies (and spirits) back on track … we’ll all do it together in a supportive community.

Here in Tahoe, back in March, local officials first blasted out antagonistic “us vs. them” statements to those with second homes. Stay away, they warned, fearing an explosion of cases that never came about. (The Truckee mayor later reversed his stance and suggested those who were sheltering here should remain in place.) The irony is that now even the most essential business of all is suffering. The local hospitals, desperate for any revenue, are reaching out on social channels to drum up lost business. “Please don’t wait for treatment if you need emergency care. It’s SAFE to come to our emergency departments at Tahoe Forest Hospital and Incline Village Community Hospital, and we’re here for you 24/7.” They’re also offering new services such as virtual wellness events and workshops. We think this is the right tone, and speaks both to existing customers and new ones.

You’ll need both push and pull marketing in the New Unpredictable. The same challenge of creativity and innovation will be multiplied across industries. Dentists, dermatologists, you name it, they need a new model or thousands of these businesses will fade into bankruptcy. Now that women have survived without $100 haircuts for a couple of months what’s it going to take to bring them into the salon again? How about, for starters, letting us know how exhilarating it will feel when our hair is healthy and beautiful again? And as for travel, that endangered pastime, how can a hotel evoke what you’ve been craving these past weeks cooped up in your home or apartment? The answer is simple and mysterious. We’re human. There are feelings or moods you need, an essential experience you’ll gladly find room for in your now studiously monitored budget.

This is the opposite of rushing to open. It’s a given that you have to create a safe environment for staff and customers. But clinical reopening plans written by bored managers are turn-offs. Extras must become vibrantly essential. Whatever you sell, whether it’s a product or a service, now needs passion and a story. Get ready to relaunch. Your survival depends on it.