Keeping Brands Afloat During Times of Crisis

Branding in Turbulent Times

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Keeping Brands Afloat During Times of Crisis
January 2021

We all dread a crisis. Whether it’s economic, political, environmental or health-related, turbulent times can harm consumers, damage businesses and kill brands. So what can brands do to stay afloat, and how can we navigate through turbulent times? In this post we explore what steps companies can take in a crisis, not only to make their brands survive, but emerge even stronger.

"Brands are built over years, and a recession is the perfect opportunity to create new relevance and value, and encourage customers to see you in a fresh light."

Let’s face it – we’re in a tough place and nobody knows quite how it’s going to end. Although we all realise that one day this crisis will be over, nobody knows what the world is going to look like the other side. Will our brands survive? Will we even have jobs to go to? Tough questions.

But it’s not as if we’ve never experienced a crisis before. Even over the last two decades, the global economy has seen many downturns. And in dealing with these crises, there are things we can learn. If history has taught us anything, it’s that as brand owners, a crisis is by no means the right time to stop reaching out to your audience and building your brand. Instead, this is the time for brands to become more agile, more creative and more resilient, to ride the waves of change and make it through the storm.

Even in the current pandemic, we can see significant shifts in consumer behaviour and media consumption, for example, the explosion of online retail and social media platforms. And these trends are an opportunity for brands to rethink what they’re doing, and find new ways to reach out to their customers. So there’s no excuse to sit there and do nothing. However the question is, if you’re going to do something, what is it?

A defining moment for brands

Before planning your next steps and taking action, firstly you need to be sensitive to the impact. In any crisis the core issues are always humanitarian. In the current situation, in just a few short weeks everybody has shifted into self-protection mode, focused on themselves, their families, their employees, their customers, and their communities.

Right now, consumers are focused on their basic physiological needs as their priority, as are business owners. In other words, both customers and businesses are thinking about survival. The automatic assumption of most business owners is that a recession is a time to forget about brand building, and concentrate on short term strategies for stimulating sales. But brand building is about long-term thinking. It can’t be reserved only for growth times. Brands are built over years, and a recession is the perfect opportunity to create new relevance and value, and encourage customers to see you in a fresh light.

Brand Investment in a Crisis

That’s why some companies accelerate during a recession, because they see the downturn as an opportunity to elevate their brand. In fact, studies have shown that companies that maintain their brand spend during a crisis consistently increase sales and market share after it. Whereas brands that cut their spend have been proven to continue losing market share long after the crisis is over, even when the marketing spend has been reinstated.

And that’s because during a crisis, we all become risk averse and tend to place our trust in those brands we can rely on, and that truly understand and meet our needs. We look for products that represent genuine value, not because of a price promotion, but because they anticipate our needs, and deliver on their promises. So empathy and trust are essential ingredients in brand building, especially during a crisis.

What this means for businesses is that while it’s important to keep building your brand, now is not the time to focus either on overt self-promotion aimed at generating better sales, or lofty aspirational messages around self-actualization. Brands need to be more empathetic about the effect of this crisis on their customers, and be seen to be acting in the public interest.So what can we do – how can we respond to this fluid situation, when the world beyond Covid isn’t entirely predictable? It’s hard to be prescriptive right now, but we would like to share five key steps brands can take to emerge stronger after the crisis:

1. Use the lull to reassess and recalibrate your offer

Crises always cause consumers to reassess their behaviour and change priorities, and brands need to do the same. The slowdown provides an ideal opportunity to revisit your brand and see what it brings to your customers. Who knows, your value proposition may need a tune-up. And involve your staff in this process too, because they probably have a far better idea of what your customers think of your brand than you do, and if there are any problems, the way to fix it. Use the time not only to think about what did and didn’t work, but also do some research and consider how changing consumer spending patterns might open up new opportunities. This will mean closely monitoring the conversation across social-media and e-commerce platforms, to identify emerging trends. Some of these trends may be temporary, but many will be permanent.

So maybe it’s time to move your brand-thinking into a new realm, with new services and new relevance. This doesn’t mean completely changing your brand to adapt to the current crisis, but understand first what makes your brand helpful to customers, amplify that, and then it will come out stronger.

Branding in Turbulent Times

 2. Be more empathetic, and show you appreciate your customers, and staff

Next to your staff team, existing customers are perhaps the most valuable resource a company has. So during a crisis it’s time to show how much you appreciate all your stakeholders, and be more caring. With the increasing influence of the internet and social media in brand relationships, today’s customers have more power than ever to make or break your brand. And if your staff aren’t motivated to help, you won’t have a brand to deliver anyway. So it’s all the more important for brands to become more humble and human-centric, and view their offer through the lens of customer needs, and the staff who you wish to meet those needs. Everybody is feeling very vulnerable, so empathy is critical and authenticity matters more than ever.

Staff also need to know that supporting your customers during tough times is a guiding principle, and be empowered to act accordingly. And they need to feel that they are valued too. The long-term benefit of being there for customers and staff will outweigh any short-term losses. Businesses should ask themselves “How do I want people to remember my brand after the crisis?”. The actions you take now will go deeper into the memory than any marketing campaign ever could later.

3. Seize the downturn as an opportunity to win, with new solutions

The down time brought by a crisis is the perfect opportunity for exploration and discovery, and companies should use the lull to innovate and produce winning solutions. It’s also the best time to launch a new brand or venture and strengthen your competitive position, because the competition is likely to be less active, and it will cost you less to do it. Prices are cheaper for everything in times of crisis, and this is something you should take advantage of. The effort that you put into enhancing your brand or developing new solutions now, is going to increase your brand recognition during and even after the uncertain times.

So use the insights into consumer behaviour and emerging trends you gained in step 1, and consider refreshing your brand image, or experimenting with different product and service concepts, new delivery methods, more creative packaging, or other ideas you’ve always wanted to pursue but never had the time to explore before. Consider ‘quick fail’ iterative approaches in test markets, as a way to gauge what your customers will respond to best.

4. Be in control of your narrative, and build rapid-response communication

In times of crisis, you must always remain in control of your own narrative, and be agile enough to switch the channels you use to communicate the right brand story as circumstances change. A time of crisis requires spontaneity, and the need to get your message out there before others do. Most importantly, brands should consider shifting their marketing efforts online where consumers are spending more time, and modifying their media mix between digital platforms.

As a result of this crisis the ‘journey’ customers are taking to make purchasing decisions is changing rapidly. So brand owners need to be more responsive about how they direct their marketing spend, channel management, and message to align with where customers are at in that journey. When marketers understand the changing nature of this journey, and direct their spending and messaging to the moments of maximum influence, they stand a much greater chance of reaching consumers in the right place, at the right time, with the right message.

5. Do good and collaborate to pay it forward

Uncertain times call for a stronger sense of solidarity, and the message that we are all in this together. This is the time to be personal, to offer value beyond whatever it is you were selling before. This will mean not only conveying reassuring messages that reinforce an emotional connection with your customers, but also offering price breaks or value-adds that help customers through the bad times. It could also mean teaming up with your community and even competitors to work for good causes addressing current pain points.

The other thing is to consider putting your existing resources to good use. For example in the Covid crisis Diageo donated 2 million litres of alcohol worldwide, to address a shortage of hand sanitisers.

Initiatives like these will not only help to keep the brand alive, but also address actual needs. People will remember brands for their acts of kindness in a time of crisis, particularly if done with true heart and generosity. However, these initiatives need to be genuine and not done solely for commercial gain. Consumers are quick to spot brand actions that are inauthentic.

Bringing it all together – be ready for the after

The only certainty in a crisis is that there will be an after. In general, brands need to be aware that a crisis is an opportunity, and that progress often comes from facing dire situations and responding to the challenge with better solutions. Above all we believe that empathy, generosity, agility, and authenticity are the core principles that will guide brands in times like these.

So brands should embrace the crisis, as challenging times see customers needing more care, sympathy and generosity. Even though the crisis might mean your business takes a short-term hit to the bottom line, continuing to serve customers, take care of your staff, and mitigate risk for all your stakeholders, will be beneficial to the long-term health of your brand.

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