Can brands thrive in times of uncertainty?
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
What does Brexit, climate change and COVID-19 all have in common?
Three things stand out for me:
The future is unpredictable and uncertain. No matter how well you plan for it, there will always be some unexpected curveballs, as is the case in our own lives
What worked yesterday isn't guaranteed to work in the same way tomorrow. Don't get hung up on things not going to plan. Pivot and forge ahead with an adaptive approach
We need to imagine and prepare for a better future, proactively; taking nothing for granted and always take an optimistic outlook
The one insight that threads these together is never to assume that the present condition will be fit for purpose to meet tomorrow's needs. It is indeed the case for the retail sector, financial services, energy sector and many other industries that are facing unprecedented market competition and rapid change.
We have to strive for better, fairer, more ethical, kinder and more sustainable practices in everything we do, every day, and relentlessly. Why? Because it isn't just about economic survival for brands, albeit very important. Instead, it's about creating a just world where all people have an equal chance to prosper while taking care of one another and our planet.
During this unique and unprecedented time of uncertainty caused by COVID-19, it seems natural for panic and pandemonium to set in. Stories of shoppers stockpiling toilet paper, on the surface, looks somewhat amusing and ludicrous. However, the human instinct for self-preservation and fear drives much of people's behaviour.
The scientific community would argue that the rational response to a perceived threat is to gather more information to inform decision making. Unfortunately, our instinctive reaction when we confront fear is either fight or flight. Many people forfeit rational thinking as a consequence.
It is all too easy to forget that we are all in this challenging time together. The inclination towards self-preservation is undeniable. However, we should measure our humanity on how well we look out for one another, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society.
Communities across China, France, Italy, Spain, the US and perhaps very soon, England too, will be or have been on 'lockdown'. Other countries could quickly follow. The movement of people and social gatherings has become restricted, at least until there is the confidence that COVID-19 is under control and less of a threat. Until then, self-isolation and quarantine is our collective defence to reduce its spread.
Can brands do anything to help?
What can brands do to make a difference during these unstable and uncertain times? Here are three values that will make a tangible difference; in addition to governments aid, of course.
In France, as of 17th March 2020, there's been approximately ninety-one deaths and four thousand five hundred cases of reported coronavirus infections. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the luxury goods conglomerate, LVMH - the parent company of Christian Dior, Guerlain and Givenchy - has pledged to help French health authorities by manufacturing hand sanitisers and providing it to them for free.
Christian Dior’s factory in Saint-Jean de Braye © LVMH
I particularly like the below simple gesture of kindness from Pret A Manger. I won't labour on it as their ad campaign is self-explanatory.
What the current global pandemic has highlighted is that brands have an essential role to play to help us all through it. A brand's higher purpose isn't only to meet their customer's evolving needs. That is paramount and goes without saying. A brand's enduring character will be shown if they are able to pivot at a moment's notice in order to respond to protect and preserve their community and nation by deploying their capabilities and expertise.
Doing so, without putting short-term profitability into the equation, but rather taking a long-term societal view means that the next generation of consumers will not forget their acts of philanthropy and altruism.
The up and coming consumer group, known as Generation Alpha (aka Generation Z), are a generation of activists. Think Greta Thunberg, the young 17-year-old, articulate and outspoken climate change activists. She is not alone; there are armies of young people who are determined to forge a better future, vehemently rejecting the status quo.
Here are the attributes of Generation Alpha
They are born between 1995 and 2019
They are digital masters, technologically connected and tech-savvy group, more so than millennials
They are reverting to physical play, and they want more time with their family
They actively enjoy creative projects
They are on a mission to save the planet
They are less judgemental than other groups, and they are more willing to accept people as they are
The next generation of consumers is changing the world. How can you ensure that your brand can keep up with their evolving expectation?
For some brands, the temptation or imperative to downsize to cope with COVID-19 is a very real threat. It is a tough decision to make and one that will impact the livelihood of their employees. At such difficult times, business leaders face an unenviable choice - downsize now or face possible extinction later. For those brands that find themselves in a perilous and precarious position, this could be the time to pivot.
Pivoting requires asking and answering some very tough questions. Questions such as: are we delivering value to our customers and partners? Are we living out our purpose and values? Do we believe in ourselves and the value we create? How can we make our products, services and supply chain more transparent, ethical and sustainable? What positive difference are we making to our customer's lives, to our community, nation and to the world?
If your answers are not satisfactory to you, they won't be adequate to your customers, employees and partners. If this is the case, it is time to make some changes and fast, before it's too late.
Begin your transformation journey by doing some initial soul searching. Rekindle your purpose by remembering why you got into your business line and the difference you wanted to make through your products and services. Tap into your sense of altruism and reconnect with your innate gift of positively impacting your employees, community and customers. Then embark on your listening crusade. Listen to your employees, to your customers, to your suppliers and to the market that you operate within. Extract useful insights to form your business revival strategy.
Then develop your short-term, medium-term and long-term roadmap. Ensure that you establish tangible and impactful 'quick wins' that will energise your business and provide you with the impetus to persevere towards your longer-term goals.
Be open-minded, flexible and adaptable. There will be rapid learnings along the way, and you may have to pivot several times due to changing circumstances. Uncertainty is the new norm; don't be afraid to embrace it. Trust yourself to make the right decisions and learn from your mistakes without beating yourself up or blaming others. Accept that you won't get it right every time. Instead, your attitude should be one of continuous learning. Knowledge is a competitive advantage, so acquire it at pace through study, direct experience or by listening to others. Nowadays, there are vast data sources available to extract insights from.
Brands, institutions and organisations hold a privileged position within society. If they genuinely embody their brand truth and purpose, they are usually valued and supported by the communities in which they exist and serve.
Their very purpose is to serve others, to improve and add value to the lives of their constituents. In simplistic terms, their primary function is to make other people's lives better, whether that's through creating memorable moments, or by providing valued products and services.
When brands forget their purpose and values and exploit their constituents through short-termism and selfish ambition, they will not survive the long game of longevity. Their success and life will shorten if they don't innovate, relentlessly putting their customer's first in everything they do, and in every decision taken.
We see evidence of this in the once iconic and flourishing, yet collapsed businesses that include the likes of Woolworth, Blockbusters, Toys R Us, Pan American, Borders, Tower Records, Netscape and Compaq, to name a few. Of course, each one of these companies has its own complex story as to why they went under. Whichever way you slice their reasons, we cannot avoid the fact that their customers choose their competitors over them. This will continue to happen to organisations that rest on their laurels, sleep at the wheel or take their customers for granted.
Whether we like it or not, brands must innovate to stay fresh and attractive. I have made comparisons between an innovative brand and a successful marriage. The success formula is remarkably similar. It includes:
Putting your partner's needs ahead of your own
Having your partner's needs at the forefront of your mind
Giving the occasional treats, gifts and delightful surprises
Making your partner feel loved, cherished and valued
Being an attentive and active listener
Continuously invest in strengthening the relationship
Anyone that is in a long-term relationship knows that it takes commitment, effort and energy to have a happy and fulfilling relationship. It can all fall apart if communication is poor, affections wanes, financial woes set in, deceit, infidelity or other corrosive behaviour manifest and are left to fester.
To avoid encountering the rot, the onus is on the brands, institutions and organisations to ensure that they are listening to, delighting and continuously and consistently meeting the needs of their constituents; and occasionally exceed their expectations.
Applying these three simple values of philanthropy, agility and customer-centricity, I believe will enable brands to thrive in uncertain times.