29 Jan 2021

Thoughts in Progress #7

Tom Robinson explores the key pillars to building brand resilience during, and after, the pandemic. 

Spelling out the pillars of a resilient brand

Everyone will have their own 'word of the year' after this tumultuous period. For the Collins Dictionary it was 'lockdown' but if we apply a brand lens to the past 12 months, the word must be 'resilience'. 

This is the characteristic that the brands which survived, and even thrived, in 2020 possess and which will give them a head start when normality returns. 

Collins defines resilience as 'the ability to bounce or spring back into shape, position, etc'. This raises the question just how much are brands and businesses going to revert to their original 'shape' and how desirable is it to do so?  

A reversion to pre-pandemic processes, operations and strategy may not be the right option and it will be intriguing to see which recently introduced practices brands will jettison and which they will retain as they move out of crisis mode into rebuilding for growth. 

From my recent discussions with several global brands across a variety of sectors, I've identified four pillars that underpin brand resilience. 

1. Consistency counts

Brands that demonstrated their resilience went into this period of huge disruption knowing their purpose and staying true to it. The turmoil didn't throw them into confusion about why they exist, rather it made them think about how to respond in an effective and authentic way consistent with their established values. 

This was demonstrated in initial pandemic brand messages. Staying silent wasn't an option, but many confused how to react, resulting in a plethora of 'we're in it together' messaging and a homogenous blandness of tone. Cut-through came from those that stayed true to the essence of their brand - think Nike's 'Play inside. Play for the world' that harnessed its long-cultivated equity in being competitive but sportsmanlike. 

The possession of a clear purpose helps guide a brand in "unprecedented times" as to how it should act towards its stakeholders - its shareholders, suppliers, customers, employees and many more. Some companies handled their workforce's well-being and financial worries brought about by the mass pivot to working from home better than others - Google gave each employee $1000 to cover WFH expenses and is allowing employees to work remotely until July 2021. 

Consistent core values will help brands align with the growing focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) behaviours. The investor community is placing a greater emphasis on a brand's ESG credentials and acting with wider good in mind beyond profit is becoming linked to financial incentives to follow this path. For instance, Legal & General Investment Management and others have just signed an agreement to invest only in companies that are aiming for net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. 

2. Listen and be receptive

Receptiveness is another quality that resilient brands possesses. The ability to respond in the most appropriate way for your audience requires listening and understanding just how much people's lives have changed and how your customers - whether B2B or B2C - have been impacted. 

It's vital to put yourself in your audience's shoes and imagine what their worries and concerns are, otherwise your brand will come across as tone deaf. 

One of the first communications I received in lockdown was a very descriptive message from a mortgage company telling me how I should contact them from this point onwards - there was no asking about my circumstances and whether I was in financial distress or if I needed help. If a brand has not moved from a business-centric view to a customer-centric view by now, then it will really struggle in the days ahead. 

Examples of brands that have listened and met customer concerns or needs abound. Deliveroo became very important to restaurants switching to takeaway orders only but also acknowledged customer fears and introduced a simple 'no contact' doorstep drop off process. 

Meeting a different need, Netflix realised that viewers in lockdown missed the social connectivity of watching a show together and so introduced Netflix Party (now Teleparty), to provide synchronised playback of shows and allow subscribers to enjoy shared viewing. 

3. Adapt at speed

Every brand had to review its business model and strategy and find a new way of doing things. The brands under most pressure were the ones that had to change their whole model and the way they create value. Many demonstrated amazing adaptability - airlines shifted from passengers to cargo and CPG brands explored direct to consumer distribution. 

Changing business strategy means focusing on maximising the value that a brand creates and virtually every business had to tear up its original 2020 plans and make swift decisions on the information at hand. Chinese cosmetics company Lin Qingxuan had to close 40% of its outlets at the start of the pandemic but redeployed its dozens of in-store beauty advisors as online influencers using digital platforms such as WeChat to keep sales afloat. 

Many businesses now have a moment to pause and take stock before drawing up a flexible strategy for 2021. They must ask themselves whether actions taken in the past 12 months helped maximise value and should they be retained? Did WFH bring benefits and will it increase productivity? Did the business choose the right digital tools for collaboration and business conversations and have employees bought into new ways of working? 

The latter point is crucial as changing an embedded culture is the hardest challenge for any business but without the support of employees, any other changes are likely to fail. Review the lessons and adapt your strategy accordingly. 

4. Take a leadership position

Lastly resilient companies showed leadership. Brands who led from the front were able to promote confidence among customers, employees and investors and had more chance of survival than those lingering at the back. 

This kind of commercial leadership within the category or sector shades into moral leadership and embeds a brand deeper into the social fabric and culture. The shining example is Burger King urging customers to order from competitor McDonald's in support of the overall restaurant sector. 

Supporting frontline workers, such as NHS employees, also showed pro-active leadership and earned public applause. Many companies, such as Leon and Pret-A-Manger, supported the not-for-profit Feed NHS campaign and delivered meals at 50% discount to hospitals. 

Heading into the next 12 months it's essential brands take account of the forces at play influencing consumer and stakeholder behaviour and build their resilience accordingly so they can navigate through what will remain a challenging environment. 

There are a host of challenges ahead and how the economy will track is hard to predict. Some forecasters are suggesting a 'K-shaped' recovery with a swift recovery for some sectors, while others could be left behind. 

There are opportunities but brands will have to build up their resilience if they are to succeed and a good start is to audit your strength - and regularly - in these four key areas of leadership, consistency, adaptability, receptiveness. 

First published in Business Vision.