Is your brand ready for the new normal?

2020 feels like a hurricane full of tornadoes. If you’re running a business right now, you have a lot to think about. This may not feel like the right moment to step back and consider the state of your brand, but if you’re looking to grow, pivot or transform your organization, it’s a moment you don’t want to miss.

Zak Menkel is Doubleknot’s Director of Strategy & Copywriting. (Photo Credit: Katie Moum)

This is not about making lemonade out of a horrific pandemic. It’s about moving into an uncertain future with intention, empathy and a plan.

COVID-19 is the largest cultural and economic and shockwave we’ve seen in a generation. America’s long-simmering cauldron of systemic inequity and racial violence is boiling over. We’re living through one of those moments that creates a universal “pre- and post-” divide in our personal and collective timelines. Acknowledging that means admitting to ourselves that things won’t be returning to normal. Things will get better (optimist hat on), but they will be different. They already are.

We’re living through one of those moments that creates a universal “pre- and post-” divide in our personal and collective timelines.

Some organizations — like some people — manage change or crisis better than others. Those who do generally have a strong sense of self, a deep and authentic connection to their community, and a clear purpose. This is the essence of a strong brand. If your business is struggling with decisions around how to respond to what’s unfolding around you, you’re not alone. But, it may also be an indicator that your brand strategy is not well defined or that you are not using it as a tool to guide your actions.

Your brand is arguably the most valuable asset your company has. But you don’t “own” it; it’s the perceptions people have of you. Your Brand Strategy is a framework that guides the way you act, as an organization, to amplify, shape or change those perceptions. It enables you to make decisions — sometimes tough decisions — based on an understanding of who you are, why you matter, and what impact you want to have on the world.

Crisis creates urgency… and opportunity.

Every company has growth goals… new markets they want to tap, new audiences they want to engage, new ways they want to add value to their business. We put these goals onto the cost/benefit scale to determine where to invest — and how much risk is associated with that investment.

COVID-19 has totally shifted the balance of those scales. Normally, changing the way consumers think or act is hard, slow, and — from a marketing perspective — expensive. But this is not normal. All of a sudden, change is not so hard to swallow… whether by desire or necessity, change feels inevitable. In addition to radically altering the way we work, parent, educate, and communicate, this virus is triggering broad and dramatic shifts in consumer behavior. The result is that brands have greater “permission” to embrace new opportunities, but they also face new threats.

Normally, changing the way consumers think or act is hard, slow, and — from a marketing perspective — expensive. But this is not normal.

Think about the way you’ve shopped over the last several months:

  • Shopping at different stores/sites, at different times, with different frequency?
  • More open to trying new products or brands (by choice or necessity)?
  • Exploring new fulfillment models (remote, delivery, direct to consumer)?
  • Less interested in “status” purchases?
  • Looking for brands that “do good” or share your values?
  • Caring about the culture and leadership of the brands you buy?

And the data says you’re not alone. Don’t be fooled into thinking these are blips driven solely by the physical realities of the pandemic. Long-held habits and rituals are being disrupted and replaced. Waiting for them to change back is not a viable business plan. Many of the changes we see in consumer behavior will continue, and in some cases accelerate. Yes, many people currently working from home will eventually return to offices, but many will not. That alone will have a ripple effect on real estate, retail, technology, service and many other sectors. The question is, how will your brand respond to these shifts? How can you mitigate the impacts they have on your business, or better yet, turn them to your advantage?

Step one is evaluation.

Before you react to what’s happening around you, ask yourself what your brand actually means to consumers and employees. Is your “brand” just a puffed-up word for your logo and marketing, or is it actually driving business decisions around what you sell, how you make it, who you hire, how you treat them?

Here’s a quick self-diagnostic exam for your brand strategy:

  1. Do you understand how the work you do is connected to a bigger purpose?
  2. Do you understand the deeper (emotional not functional) value your products or services provide?
  3. Are you crystal-clear on the tangible ways you’re different from your competition?
  4. Do you know who your customer is, who they are not, and why?
  5. Do you know the reason customers are loyal to you, and is it something you can own or protect?
  6. Does your brand nurture and support the community or cultural subgroup your audience identifies with? (If so, where and how?)
  7. Does your external persona match your internal culture?
  8. Are your values clear to you and everyone you work with?
  9. Are those values clearly expressed in your brand identity and communications?
  10. Do you act on those values even when it’s uncomfortable?

These are hard questions. They force us to make choices, to prioritize, to close some doors in order to open others wider. But being loved by some is more valuable than being liked by many.

Our next article, Strategy is Sacrifice [COMING SOON], explores this in more depth.

How should [YOUR BRAND] respond to what’s happening in the world?

How do you mitigate threats to your business and capitalize on the opportunities this moment presents? If your house is in order, these questions become a lot easier to answer. Here are some examples of how a clear and differentiated brand strategy can help you respond to disruption:

1. Know your audience: Not just demographics and segments, but what they care about, why they love you, and where you can connect with them.

WHY: Because if we truly know and respect our audience, we can ask ourselves how what’s happening in the world is affecting them, and how we might be positioned to reduce their pain or add value to their lives in that context.

2. Know your purpose: Why are we here? What change do we want to see in the world? How does our daily work connect to our loftiest ambitions?

WHY: Because if you understand the deeper value you bring to the world, you can see opportunities to add that same value in the context of different products, services or delivery models. These bigger ideas — happiness, belonging, safety, peace-of-mind, sustainability, individualism — enable you to expand or pivot the “product” you deliver while still remaining true to your brand.

3. Know your position: What do you deliver that no one else can? Why is it uniquely valuable to your audience? How is it different from your competition?

WHY: This enables you to look at changes in consumer behavior or market dynamics and determine how they will impact you. Do consumers still value us for the same reasons? Is our value proposition still ownable? Do we need to shift the way we deliver our product or service in order to continue providing that unique value?

4. Know your values: What do you stand for or against? What will you fight for? What principles govern your interaction with your community?

WHY: Because your customer cares, and right now, they are making a lot of choices for the first time. In the absence of habit, your values become an important differentiator for your brand, because they provide your consumer with an opportunity to signal their own.

5. Know your voice: What human characteristics do you embody as a brand? What kind of character are you in your customer’s story?

WHY: We make judgements every time we interact with a person or a brand. Do you like them? Do you relate to them? Are they funny? Needy? Reliable? Honest? Uptight? Your voice and personality are cues to your consumer about the role you will play in their life. In a moment of disruption, they can signal a change in that role, or reinforce the continuity of service you deliver.

This is doable work

If you’re thinking about updating your brand strategy (or if you’re starting from scratch), don’t wait, but be prepared. You need to be ready to do the work, make the investment, and ensure that the words you put on paper get translated into tangible action. But the good news is that this is achievable work, not ivory tower philosophy, and the process is scalable to any organization. No matter your size, your industry, your brand can be a powerful asset in these strange times.

For more on how to right-size your brand strategy process and ensure you’re getting real value from it, check out: Branding is Not a Luxury [COMING SOON].