Tastes, attitudes, and behaviours change naturally over time. As a Brand Manager, your role is to continuously adapt to the ever-changing market by focusing on your customers’ needs and how those needs can be met. If you don’t, your brand is soon rendered irrelevant. In response to the coronavirus crisis, many brands have been agile and repurposed their offers to meet their customers’ immediate needs during the pandemic.  I was surprised to hear that Pot Noodle has launched a virtual alternative career fair encouraging people to stir up their future. It sounds strange at first, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Knowing that many young people were losing their jobs, deferring university places, and worrying about the future, they’ve been proactive in helping their customers.

But how do brands plan for such an uncertain future? Should they focus their efforts on weathering the downturn or plan for the recovery instead? I wanted to speak to Charlie Stott, the Strategy & Business Development Director of the market-leading brand consultancy, Wolff Olins, to understand his thoughts.

Over the last couple of weeks, what brands do you think are navigating the current climate well?

Initially, many brands struggled – teams just weren’t prepared for the speed of transition. Looking back, though, I think that most brands have eventually done what they believe is best. Some have been generous, and others have not – and it’s very telling. For example, Greggs halted their plans to reopen following fears of crowds and the safety of their staff while Weatherspoon’s told their staff to take a job at Tesco. Leaders had different responses and were reacting to different pressures – some thought it through, some just reacted.

Right at the beginning of the Covid crisis, a lot of brands really missed the mark. They didn’t understand the sense of the public mood and moved into a ‘corona washing’ brand management blah. McDonald’s infamously amended their golden arches in reference to social distancing. Actually, I think the team in Brazil did that with good intentions. But it wasn’t well-received because they didn’t offer anything else – and people have big expectations of the big brands (and their famous – rich – brand owners). On the other hand, you saw how Spotify managed to remain genuine and authentic. They led a useful response to the crisis, trying to help struggling artists by allowing listeners to donate directly to them via the app.

The media has been quick to highlight organisations that don’t treat their employees well. Do you think their behaviour will cause any long-term brand ramifications?

I really hope so, but I suspect not sadly.

I think the brands that are dependent on talent have and will continue to treat their staff well. But brands hiring by the hour, the Amazon’s and Uber’s of the world have been lambasted in the press for prioritising customers over employees. Given how their leadership responded, would anyone really want to work at Weatherspoons or Sports Direct over Greggs or Tesco? I think not. But not everyone has the optionality, remembers, or can afford to really care deep down. I hope these stories help people make choices of who to work for and who to buy from, but as individual elements long term no, I suspect not. It’s when the behaviors cumulates – that when you see the long term ramifications.

I do think that the unions have a really exciting opportunity to fundamentally reconnect with employees, and how they react is going to be very interesting. And as a long term ramification, I would expect them to seize the initiative and drive a new push in unionism.

But back to your question. Despite what the media says, I feel people will forget how badly some brands have treated their staff, and from their perspective, it won’t cause long term damage: it should – but I don’t think it will.

Given the challenges that the market faces, do you think that brands should be using this time to evaluate their purpose?

No. During this time, I’d recommend that organisations reimagine its brand and plan how it will fit with the ‘new’ world. I don’t think that evaluating your ‘purpose’ is necessarily the right lens by which to be doing this at this moment – because leaders need to consider shorter-term plans. I think that the next 90 days are critical for every organisation. These days are going to define your business, brand, and your own leadership success. In the super short-term, you need to be focusing on your customers’ emotional needs – talking and thinking about them and not yourself. Way too many organisations are still talking about themselves. It is essential to focus on what your customers are thinking and what they’re likely to be thinking in the future so you can start to build your future brand map. Doing so will help to ensure that you’re on the front foot as we emerge from the crisis. Fundamentally, you’ve got to connect with your customers differently. People have moved on so you can’t go back to your old communication style. You’ve got to start thinking about what you’ll be saying in the future. What are the drivers or the points that have fundamentally changed for your customers?

If your purpose doesn’t help with that, then you have the wrong purpose – so take a note to review it but focus on the plan. I also believe that the thinking behind purpose has shifted on its axis slightly. Last year at Wolff Olins, we started looking at how brands are evolving given tech and the climate change transition.

We expect we’re seeing a new era (the sixth) of brand emerging – one that we are calling “conscious brand.” of brand emerging – one that we are calling “conscious brand”. These brands don’t only have a strong sense of responsibility but they are responsive to the emotional state of their audience.

This pandemic has fast-forwarded this transition – an urgency to the sense of collectivism and solidarity that’s been bubbling away and that the climate change movement put front and center. Our so obvious co-dependency is making organisations, and big businesses reimagine the simplistic nature of capitalism. The mantra of shareholder first capitalist focus has shifted to longer-term stakeholder capitalism. You’ve seen all sorts of organisations and CEOs moving on this. Blackrock, for instance, who popular press say are probably the quintessential capitalists, have advanced their thinking and risk assessments based on this type of thinking. And with this transition, we’ll see a new era of brand emerge, where organisations have an opportunity – actually, I suspect it will be more of an obligation in a few years – to be fundamentally responsible and use technology to be much more responsive. The implications are exciting – how fast brands can transition to this more emotive, collective, and conscious role will be interesting.

According to Kantar, strong brands recovered nine times faster than weaker brands following the financial crash of 2008. How can a brand maintain its position in the market at a time where they may need to watch their budgets?

In the short term, most brands are in the same boat, so the position is relative, so to speak. I think in the longer term, it comes down to this issue of leadership and planning – not just at the CEO level but at every level of leadership. Teams need to think about how they will build a new narrative that will strengthen their position in the market, allowing them to make the most of new opportunities. That, for me, is the fundamental thing – looking at this as an opportunity to pivot. This is how brands will lift their way out of this, and there will be winners and losers. The well-led organisations will find a way through this. The badly led ones – those who don’t think they need to adapt and fashion a new connection with customers will lean on what they’ve done in the past, and they’ll struggle.

What are the lessons you think brands should learn from this experience?

That the context has changed. This experience is about people, fear, and fragility. I think that brands need to understand the impact that they have on people. So, I think the thing to learn is how do you respond and react to how people feel in the short, medium, and long term. The public mood and sentiment has shifted, and the views of consumers are going to shift too. I’ve got no evidence for this other than instinct, and it’s still too early to call. Of course, lots of people will slip back into old habits. But many wont, they see this as an opportunity to be part of the change that they want to see in the world. Don’t simply dust down your old messaging, your old ways of working of raising money in the hope that it will work in the post Covid-world. You need to question if your plan is strong enough, and relevant enough, to achieve the cut-through that you need.

Before you go, is there anything that you’d like to say to brand managers?

Look after yourself goes without saying. But know how you, as an individual, are going to lead your team and the way out of this. Really think about it – give yourself the time to do that. The world might get back to the familiar patterns, but the expectation of what your brand does and should do has probably fundamentally changed. Take the opportunity to change. Know how you’re going to get your team working together to find that new way forward. In the short term it might not be about going back to the beginning, to your purpose as I mentioned earlier. It’s about creating a plan for your brand and how it will fit within the sentiment of the new world – and as that sentiment becomes clearer reformulate your brand for it. Good luck – I suspect we’ll all need it.

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