ARE BRANDS FEELING SAFE?

During times of crisis, brands always find themselves at cross roads. And the current time has left many brands/companies tearing up their best laid plans with the scenario of starting all over again later this year. Also a natural reaction to any form of crisis or catastrophe is to hunker down and protect ‘what’s mine’- where brands focus on short-term profitability, but with demand for most brands either through the roof or through the floor, it is time for a long term game plan.

Traditionally this time of the year has always been the season to review one’s strategy and switch things up a bit, and most brands favour this period to launch a new product/service but this time it’s time to press ‘delete’ on traditional approaches as we take a moment to stop and reconsider.

The ongoing Covid-19 situation has forced major parts of society into lockdown and most businesses have now put everything on the back burner, cancelled their growth strategies, slowed down – or possibly scaled up – their marketing campaigns and any outward looking activity.  Most brands- (particularly SMEs) are now in survival mode in the wake of this vast and dislocating change.

So how do most brands go ahead? How do they connect with an audience that is in uncertainty and fear? How do they work with a team that has lost a portion of their earnings? How do they set the tone and voice of what they have to say as much that was part of a brand’s messaging strategy is now literally redundant or getting there fast! 

We are collectively in uncharted territory perhaps for the first time on a global level and it is testing us all. Testing us in our ability to be resilient, to be empathetic, to be understanding in a disruptive environment. 

Brands in the present scenario are at greater risk and the biggest concerns are how to advertise and what to advertise or whether to advertise at all!

Most brands fall into one of three categories: either Covid-19 has been catastrophic for their business, as in the case of airlines, hotels, theatres and pubs; it has driven huge demand, as in the case of supermarkets, fitness/gym equipment brands and broadband providers; or there has been a drop in demand, but not a catastrophic one – so most retailers, car makers and other manufacturers that could earlier import and export freely but how soon before the wheels turn for them too to lose more than they have foreseen. In pretty much every case, there are discussions about cutting budgets, either due to lack of funds or due to not wanting to prompt demand beyond capacity. 

This huge impact can also be seen across the media landscape. It should come as little surprise that outdoor and cinema have taken huge hits as people are ordered to stay indoors and cinemas are forced to close. But in-home media is also struggling. ITV says all categories of business are deferring Ad spend during March and April, adding that it is not in a position to provide guidance on the extent of the downturn. Given the hit to both top and bottom lines, many brands have cut ‘discretionary’ spend, which often includes marketing.

Whitbread PLC, which owns the Premier Inn hotel chain and restaurant brands Brewers Fayre and Beefeater, says it is “eliminating” marketing spend. John Lewis has paused its spring campaign and is reducing marketing spend across the board. Many UK retailers and High Street brands have gone into administration in the last few weeks- https://www.business-live.co.uk/retail-consumer/list-shops-fallen-administration-2020-18177619

We have to also be very careful here to understand the nature and the dynamics of political shifts, economical decisions and a few other factors that have been going on over the last few years that have been instrumental in most businesses going out of business. The Covid Lockdown has merely been exposing this and the final nail to the coffin of why there is a decline in brands not being able to sustain like they used to.

But the bottom line is that working life across the board has been redefined and brands / brand owners out there are now asking the question, are we feeling safe in these times of absolute uncertainty? 

This question can only be answered truly by each brand owner and its team by addressing the primary concerns first in terms of what are the crucial steps that are being taken, or need to be taken in terms of ‘social distancing’ to protect their own people and to also assure their customers. But the larger question about feeling safe is to do with whether brands and businesses will survive the times; whether their products and services will still be viable in this redefined atmosphere? Have they truly kept up with the shift in how people have thinking, feeling and understanding where the world is at vis a vis their needs, or have the brands merely been on a train that has gathered momentum and then eventually will run out of steam because it wasn’t properly fueled.

How about if businesses started to again think and act like a startup?  Agreed that for most multinational companies, multi thousand populated corporations, this can be alien as most CEOs that run these businesses have probably never worked out of a shed or their kitchen tables, never felt the fear of cash running out and rarely would have started anything from scratch (given that they would most probably have jumped straight onto the bandwagon of corporate shiny towers straight after graduating from business school etc). We also know very well how these multinationals are protected by government policies and bailouts that ensure their pay packets keep flowing. But it is the SMEs all over that are feeling unsafe and the only way to build business back is to think and act like a re-startup, bringing new ways of speaking intelligently and purposefully to the customer who has now not only less spending powers but also has shifted their own priorities in terms of how they live and have been living so far, and therefore demand has noticeably changed.

What does this mean-or- look like- ACT LIKE A RE-STARTUP? 

It means once again going back to the drawing board; once again reconnecting to the passion about why they chose to start a particular brand in the first place.  What was the raison d’etre behind that product or service? What was the primary vision? Or was it just purely greed driven?  Has there been a larger purpose and if so, has that purpose been diluted along the way? Has it been traded for a materialistic shine that can blind so many brands and brand owners into thinking that they are indestructible!  This is actually a great time to stop and take stock. A great opportunity, even though comes in times of adversity (which is often the way).

How about if brands started to view their business monthly or even weekly instead of  just quarterly?

It’s important to stay grounded and realistic, and a great time to bring more structure and focus, as well as keeping staff and customers engaged.

Quarterly meetings that were riddled with decisions being deferred to the next quarter after analysis of the current quarter, or numerous consultations/favouritism for one strategy or one department over another instead of diving in with a solidarity of bringing the brand, and it’s team’s, full potential to the larger vision. During times of crisis – economic or otherwise – brands can move even faster when faced with weekly meetings/reviews – there is no delay and decisions can be swiftly taken which brings in more dynamism to the inner workings of the brand’s ethos.

Humbling the power structure.

Corporations have long been fond of declaring themselves ‘open, flexible, understanding and diverse ’. Many never were. Whether overt or unwritten, hierarchical structures and restrictive rules of communication applied. Now, with the very real existence of the business under threat, good ideas really can come from anywhere and be taken seriously. In the true re-startup it’s more about walking that talk of encouragement rather than letting great ideas be trashed, it’s more about common access to resources that bring a deeper level of collaboration. True empowerment means each and every one is responsible for how they conduct themselves and their duties. True teamwork. Now is the time.

Digitisation 

What this truly means now takes precedence over and above anything. Businesses have for too long debated over the pros and cons of being a digital forward company, a tech driven mindset rather than just a brick and mortar led strategy. Now the decision has been made for them. It is not so much about achieving the ins and outs of employee distancing but looking at how being digital can actually integrate people, systems, and customers that are in sync with the values of the organization.

  • Create a data-centered culture to track employee and customer behaviors and on-site, local, and overall COVID-19 trends and hotspots; define data sources and seek to establish a single source of customer truth to drive better decisions and engagement.
  • Extend data, insights, and societal impact to partners, supplies, and the broader ecosystem

Brand Trust and Transparency

Brands have all too often relied on visual theatrics rather than real stuff that highlights the importance and care they take with their every move. Hygiene standards can no more be just lip service that has long been hoodwinking people. How do we know that restaurants actually clean everything and that the staff wash their hands before serving customers? How do we know the toilets in cinemas and trains are disinfected? How do we know that a brand is ethical and actually pays a lot of attention to details on their packaging and delivering? This is not something that needed a Covid-19 scenario to show us, it is more to do with genuinely wanting the trust of one’s customers by being transparent at every level. Integrity is now being called upon here. Addressing sustainability and propagating this as part of your brand’s ethos is again about actually walking that talk, from the ground up.

Is cutting spending the true choice?

Understandably mostly every business has been affected in one way or another. There are real threats for the UK and the Global economy going into recession and companies are trying to cut their spends. Re-evaluate, Re-strategise, Re-position, Re-prioritise & Re-think where does the brand need to go next and accordingly work out which channels in your strategy need special attention. Do you need to cut back on brand building in favour of performance spend or is it the other way around? Whilst it might be rational to think that if the sales aren’t coming in, brands need to stop all marketing/social media activity, or stop communication with their primary audience, this is a thin line and it’s possible that CEOs/CMOs can go wrong in their decision making. The sensible way is to stay on point to maintain the brand’s market presence through these times, think outside the box, humanise the brand’s offerings to strengthen connection with one’s audience and bring back a deeper sense of understanding to one’s internal processes, and the team that works for the brand.

Understanding the larger implications

By understanding what’s at play here in a larger context, the brand can actually become truly forward thinking. If all brand advertisers were to ‘go dark’ ie. pull out all advertising spends, the effect on consumer morale and the sentiments of doing business would suffer greatly. Not being seen to panic in such times brings out the brand’s resilience and it’s character in the face of adversity. In times of automated functions, mechanised responses and digitised processes, a brand can lead the way by staying humble, staying connected to its audience and being generous. 

There is a great value and support in being seen as a brand that looks out for everyone, that has a code of ethics and a social responsibility. This is True brand building.

In essence this is a great time to address any apathy, sluggishness, and conservatism that hinders growth and progress for all. Powerful asset-rich but slow moving corporate juggernauts are now facing a real threat from newbies who move fast and are disrupting the rules of the game who genuinely care for their societies, their communities and their people. 

Change can be uncomfortable, unwelcoming and yet it can be enormously rewarding if that change is implemented, in a true sense, by re-locating in a manner that holds responsibility for the way the brand conducts itself. Every movement and every action, every word spoken in the present times is being watched and a brand’s leadership is all about bringing clarity in their communications, and a certain panache in the way a brand walks the talk.

So it’s time to enjoy the lessons learnt, soak up the experiences, enjoy the new found ways to connect and relate and understand each other, and the amazing focus that many are realising they can bring even more consistently than ever before. Most teams have actually, across the board, pulled out all stops to ensure their company stays on track in ways that were not thought possible a few months ago. 

There is no going back and in this flow there is a palpable realization that brands can go the distance, everyone can go the distance and this is how brands can feel safe once again: because the teams who run it are able to bring their A-game no matter what!!

Our brand founder and author of this blog Chetan Jha is leading not just change but also innovation across the board through best practises that echo compassion understanding and reflection. To know more, email us: London@elixirholisticconsultancy.com 

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