Why marketers should consider COVID-19 a litmus test for brand strategy, not communications tactics

Nathan Birch
By Nathan Birch | 11 May 2020
Nathan Birch

Nathan Birch is the CEO of Interbrand Australia

Two things initially happened to brands when the COVID-19 threat escalated a couple of months ago. First was the global creative circle jerk: tweaking your logo to illustrate we should all keep our distance. Fatuous, at best.

Then, the harried retrofitting into comms: homogenised messages about how brand's purpose has always been to "help" their customers — never more so than now. Some were reassuring; most were disingenuous.

Now, the important existential question: what happens to brands, post-lockdown?

We've already crossed the Corona-Rubicon of economic contraction - this much is certain. I'd argue that brands will not be immediately thrust into some Huxley-esque world where what we knew before has no relevance or tenure.

Most marketers in Australia will have been challenged by their CEOs and boards with the question: How do we survive this? Now we're slowly moving past that point, the smart CEOs and boards are turning to their CMOs and asking: How do we succeed?

Both questions have the same answer. Right now, businesses would be wise to reassess, review, or even redefine their brand strategy.

Spend the time to get the foundation right
Often, but especially at a time like this, I'm surprised by how many marketers in Australia are too preoccupied with the hamster wheel of comms campaigns to pay attention to their fundamental strategy. If comms aren't grounded in a solid brand and business strategy, there's nothing to stop that Sisyphean spinning wheel of tactical communications.

Too often, I hear some version of: "How can we possibly slow this down when we need to get to market?" Well, for many companies, a forced slowdown is here, so there's never actually been a greater opportunity to entertain introspection and take stock of the organisation - and it's future.

The organisations that will both survive and thrive will be the ones who use this time wisely.

Even in good times, marketers often miss the vital step of investing time into developing a clear, actionable, timely brand strategy. It's hard. It takes time. It's not as sexy as campaigns. But it's the bedrock of growth and success.

Your brand strategy goes well beyond the ads and the print campaigns — it spans across products, digital roadmaps, R&D, and even employee initiatives. A great brand strategy encompasses every corner of the business.

DNA first, disruption later. Solidify your core
Businesses and brands now have a short window to consider the short, long, and lasting effects on incumbent models, changes in customer behaviour, and potential new opportunities.

Consider also: What composes your brand DNA? What differentiates you from your competitors? What can you do to disrupt your entire sector?

Some businesses (airlines, retailers, higher education) will have to readdress whether their positioning and purpose is still relevant.

For other businesses (telehealth, online players, challenger brands), it's a case of determining whether their brand strategy and ambition is bold enough. Such players will be the beneficiaries of the inevitable demise of less brand-led organisations that were allowed to occupy some sectors, pre-COVID. 

But any business that emerges from this crisis with another me-too strategy will risk stalling, if not failing. The soft middle has never been an envious place to be in the market. And yet, it has been so comfortable for many brands. That has indelibly changed. 

Brand positioning has become more binary. Do you manage a brand aiming to be the biggest? No? Then your position needs to be distinctive. Decide what your business stands for, what makes it and the experience you deliver genuinely distinctive, and the brand naturally flows from there.

It's about real-world action, not rhetoric
In the past, brand strategists of all ilks have tried to mistakenly enhance brand strategy through a process of dissection - breaking it into ever-smaller and nuanced parts: vision, mission, purpose, promise, principles, proposition, positioning, imperatives, ad infinitum. In trying to clarify it, what we've really done is confuse and conflate.

Being verbose doesn't add value. On the other end of this crisis, both employees and customers will look for guidance and clear benefit. They don't want to wade through a mire of rhetoric. Your strategy needs to cut through.

So, rather than creating model upon model, it is vital that brands sharpen their brand purpose, brand ambition and value proposition for both consumers and employees for a post COVID era.

It's your roadmap to recovery and will take you well beyond COVID-19
A brand strategy is not a destination. No amount of getting it into a pretty model on a page will make it happen. Your strategy is just the start.

It should, instead, be the impetus for action. It functions as a filter for every decision and initiative in which the business engages because business and brand strategy is, in fact, the same. It's the blueprint for a trajectory or roadmap over a considerable timescale and, if done right, means you will not only survive but thrive.

This current slowdown allows time for organisations to craft a detailed, long-view roadmap, which can immediately be put into effect.

This remains the starkest miscue I see across organisations of all types. Brand is relegated to a logo and some marketing, and the rest of the organisational imperatives are assigned to disconnected groups. When they don't meet and  aren't guided by a single ambition, the result is a fractured brand experience, with limited growth potential.

It's a smart investment and the most valuable asset for recovery

After 20 years of assessing and researching the world's most successful brands through our Interbrand Best Global Brands report, we've learned something crucial: organisations with the strongest brands weather crises best - they can survive downturns and bounce back faster than their counterparts. 

Businesses with a strong understanding of brand are superior performers in both good times and bad. In our analysis, using our Brand Strength methodology, which measures a brand across ten internal and external characteristics, those that score over 70% in brand strength are best positioned to weather whatever may come. In our post-GFC analysis from 2008, the strongest brands recovered to their pre-crisis levels (28/9/07) up to twice as fast as the benchmark indices.

Businesses will never have a crystal ball to foresee adverse events. But those that are prepared, those that invest in their brands and businesses now, will be far more likely to flourish beyond COVID-19, creating a game plan for growth and potentially mitigating the impact of any future freak occurrences.

This time should be utilised to address the strategic ambition for the brand - not for the immediate post-COVID period, but for the time beyond that. 

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