This year has been full of uncertainty for everyone – from individuals, to nations and to brands.
This Covid-induced insecurity has fuelled fear and heightened the need for organisations to project confidence and surety. Making sense of this new environment and how to navigate our anxious world, is essential for brands and their leadership.
How leaders manage a crisis can make (and break) reputations and be the difference between business survival or failure. However, with the right approach and clear thinking, it is possible for brands to not only survive, but thrive during challenging times.
The first thing a brand can do to shield itself from the unexpected and often precipitous crisis, is to know what it stands for. A strong set of brand values should be embedded long before any disaster hits – rustling up a new brand purpose as the storm is on the horizon is too little, too late.
The company’s values should already be integrated, assimilated and championed by everyone within the business so that doing the right thing is clear to everyone when those values are challenged.
Transparently discussing where the brand stands on political affairs, environmental concerns, social justice, and any other issues that are dominant at the time, means it is better prepared when the challenges come.
For example, Nike came from a place of clarity around what its brand stood for, which allowed it to be agile, bold and appropriate with its campaigns around Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter. Its response was still criticised in some quarters, but the brand was steadfast and unwavering, sure in the knowledge that it was in keeping with its brand purpose and positioning.
Brands today must lead these conversations, not simply sit on what they perceive to be the safe sidelines. As customers are experiencing increased remoteness, latency and fear, a brands’ traditional interactions with them are disrupted.
So, brands can not only create content that communicates the benefits of its products, it can develop platforms that help their customers become a community, not just a target audience. Think how Netflix Party effectively brought people together while they were apart, assisting and inspiring conversations that made its position in viewers’ lives even more pertinent.
In crises, customers’ expectations and behaviours change suddenly and the challenge to keep up with these alterations and market trends is huge. This is a moment for businesses to make their customers their advisers – not targets or data points but partners and collaborators.
P&G’s “Savvy Circle” engages passionate consumers to help refine the next set of their products and become advocates for them. “LEGO Ideas”, an online crowd-sourcing platform, allows customers to share and to vote for ideas they wish to see as additions to the product line.
Brands can then be inspired by what inspires their customers; they must listen to them and determine where to focus their often limited resources.
There is always going to be a balance between product utility and brand desire – what consumers need compared with what they want. But expectations have shifted, and that customer trajectory is no longer set in one direction.
For all its controversy, Amazon has been extremely successful throughout Covid-19 by maintaining a consistent service to its customers, but it is focusing more and more on the emotional connection people have with the Amazon brand.
The innovations we will see materialising as a result of Covid are not just short-term initiatives to circumvent the behavioural changes forced on customers. They have spurred changes that will echo long into the future.
Even smaller, more local businesses are adapting. My local cafe set up an app to order coffee and that level of ease will remain, beyond the initial need that forced its creation. To crisis proof effectively, brands must have an instinctive view of what their customers want now and will want in the future.
In recent years, we have seen brands and their leaders stepping up where governments have been slower to make changes or have failed to meet people’s expectations. These brands and leaders have started taking on the role that would have traditionally belonged to governments – like Bill Gates’ charitable foundation undertaking healthcare research and companies like Merck and Microsoft announcing changes to cut global emissions faster than governments.
Covid has been the biggest crisis most businesses have experienced. But it will not be the last. Brands that survive the impact of this must learn and adapt for whatever is coming in the future.
Daniel Binns is the CEO of Interbrand New York