March 16, 2020
Brand as a beacon in a time of uncertainty
by Simon Glynn, David Mayer & David Pianin
Social distancing, financial distress, anxiety for what the future holds: our world is facing new levels of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this time of crisis, companies are acting to protect their bottom line while adapting to customers’ newfound constraints and concerns. But although these short-term remedies are necessary, they’re far from sufficient in a time of heightened need among individuals and societies.
First, common responses may be seen as self-serving, with customers believing that the brand is prioritizing their bottom line over customers’ actual needs. Some hotel brands have already had to update their initial response, as expectations rose – whether demanded by customers or set by competitors – for the level and scope of flexibility to be offered. Second, many initiatives feel like they come from the corporate affairs team, replacing the brand’s usual character and behavior with a corporate agenda that while pragmatic, lacks humanity and distinction.
For guidance in navigating these uncertain times, we can look to brands that are creating real meaning in people’s lives. We call these Go-to Brands, and they’re the brands we seek out, care about, consult with, open up to and are happy to be seen with. Brands we love for how they relate to us, and that help us do what we previously could not.
In good times and in bad, the actions of Go-to brands offer lessons for how to effectively foster personal connection with customers and help them make progress when they need it most. These are the two dimensions that set them apart from others – creating connection and delivering progress. By focusing there, brands earn the permission to innovate beyond category boundaries and also build the goodwill needed to withstand potential missteps made in times of crisis.
These same drivers guide how to respond to COVID-19. How can you make sure that your response reinforces the connection that customers have with your brand, so it becomes a source of support rather than tension in this time of crisis? And how can you help customers make the progress that matters to them in their changed circumstances?
Now is the time to discover if your brand purpose has meaning.
Be bold and set the standard
Companies that act first and in a demonstrably different way get enduring recognition. Don’t act reactively or incrementally; provide a straightforward commitment to your customers. Connection will come from the confidence that you have their back. Progress will come from addressing not just their functional needs but also emotional and social. Airbnb was allowing customers and hosts to cancel reservations globally without penalty weeks ahead of other hospitality brands, who were still limiting that flexibility to China. Emirates let their frequent flyers know that tier qualification would be relaxed, addressing what could be seen as an unimportant anxiety yet is often top-of-mind for harried and high-value travelers.
Questions to ask yourself include:
How have the functional needs of my customers changed?
Example: Nike Training Club has begun live streaming workouts to enable virtual workouts given that in-person events have been restricted.
What emotional needs do my customers have?
Example: Genesis automotive has launched ‘Genesis Cares’, which provides six months payments if you were to lose your job.
With social interactions curtailed, what support can I provide?
Example: AMC Theatres have committed to limiting capacity for each show at 50 percent and enhanced cleaning, enabling social distancing without isolation.
Be brand-led, not just customer-led
What we’re seeing today is mostly reactive, but as time goes on, we’ll see the creativity of Go-to Brands begin to surface as they deliver meaningful leadership, no longer reactive to events but setting an agenda that their customers and the wider market recognize and respect. This is where brand acts as a beacon, a source of inspiration and authenticity. The CMO or founder/leader will need to advocate strongly in the face of operations/finance that will be focused on the shorter-term and measurable downside without belief in the more uncertain future opportunity. Now is the time to discover if your brand purpose has meaning.
Ask yourself: As a customer, in my new situation, what could I want or expect from a company promising whatever your purpose says?
Brand Purpose: ‘To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’
Google has 1,700 engineers developing a coronavirus information site to help find testing as more kits become available, bringing in expertise from Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences company.
Brand Purpose: ‘Save Money, Live Better’
A major challenge in the U.S. today is that healthcare access is uneven and expensive, with the cost of getting a test being around $1,400. Without testing and with many in the position that they can’t afford not to work, Walmart’s core audience is uniquely vulnerable. Walmart is helping their communities by providing drive-through testing in their parking lots.
Brand Purpose: ‘Connecting You to What Matters’
With schools closing nationwide and a push for many to work from home, Comcast responded with a change that will help millions of low-income Americans who don’t have internet service stay connected for education, work, or personal health reasons. They are providing complimentary services and also increasing speeds.
Brand Purpose: ‘Helping neighborhoods flourish’
To help Seattle businesses stay afloat, the city’s largest local bank, WaFd (formerly Washington Federal Bank), will provide capital to small firms hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit lines will be provided for small businesses of up to $200,000 interest-free for 90 days and expedited loans up to $30,000 to support the drop in business during the outbreak.
In uncertain times, people look for leadership and reassurance. Brand is a beacon that can help companies and their customers navigate through this turmoil. Recognize that relying only on what can be measured, risks alienating customers at a time when many markets were already facing disruption from new entrants. Don’t timidly follow the crowd, be bold and brand-led. Become the Go-to Brand now and benefit from being meaningful for years to come.