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Branding Through Economic Uncertainty

By Ryan Rieches
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We are living in a pandemic-induced economic crisis, but there is opportunity if you know where to look.

“When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters — one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”
John F. Kennedy

In the first few months of the COVID-19 lockdown, the business mood was somber. Emotions were a mixture of alarm, risk and uncertainty. There was danger out there in the market.

Now that the world is beginning to open up, the conversation is changing. I hear comments from business leaders about opportunity, such as: “This pandemic has forced us to accelerate our business model by many years. We will be a better company coming out of this,” and, “We had no choice but to innovate and pivot our business. This crisis has allowed us the opportunity to become a much more viable business for the future.”

President Kennedy was onto something.

These comments go well beyond the adjustment shifts businesses have had to make, such as remote working people or switching manufacturing to make PPE equipment. They speak to the foundational value proposition of the business itself.

These anecdotal examples are supported by hard data. For example, a recent survey* of business leaders reported, “As a result of COVID, 80% of executives see or likely see significant adjustments to their corporate strategy.”  That is a staggering number of companies who are becoming something very different than they were before COVID.

A similar finding** from leadership at private equity firms revealed that Changing the value proposition and messaging was the highest ranked corporate initiative for their portfolio companies’ future, go-to-market approach compared to pre-COVID-19.”

Now that the US and other significant economies are officially in recession, there are numerous examples I could cite from previous recessions that confirm that the most effective time to take market share is during an economic downturn. While most companies pull back on their branding and marketing, it has been proven that fortune most definitely favors the bold.

But don’t be misled, this crisis is different. The effects will be far-reaching. Many companies will have to fundamentally change to survive, and leaders who don’t proactively reposition their business and succinctly communicate its value proposition will reap the consequences of misperception, and the opportunities will be lost.

6 Branding Best Practices

For more than 25 years, BrandingBusiness has been helping business leaders find the opportunity in change. Here are 6 branding best practices distilled from our experiences with B2B clients that can be applied now to drive your business forward:

1. Leadership alignment

Think of this as internal branding. During times of crisis, the entire company looks to leadership for direction. Don’t wait until you have the perfect plan for the future. Begin by simply communicating. And don’t hesitate to ask for input. Polling your people can be an effective way to make people feel connected and valued. Ultimately, it is up to leadership to set the course – and the leadership team must be aligned and speak with one voice. The following thoughts will help you clarify the path forward.

2. Core customer needs

The needs of customers are likely to be changing as well. It would be foolish to think you know what is best for them without getting their perspective and evaluating the broader trends affecting the industry.

Marketplace research is critically important to uncover future opportunities and to understand how your brand is currently perceived. An understanding of the size of the gap between where you want to go and where you are now can be the foundation of a sales and marketing strategy aimed at changing perceptions that could seriously limit your future success.

3. Stand for something

Branding is a frequently misunderstood term. People think of logos or advertising. In our view, branding is about standing for something specific. At its essence, brand strategy is the art of sacrifice – you must give up some things in order to be known for that one differentiating thing. Being known as the best at that one thing can lead to significant growth through deepened relationships with your core audience.

4. Utilize the power of Purpose

Now, more than ever, people want to know what you stand for. They want to know what your purpose is and why you exist beyond making money. It’s about hearts as well as minds. Purpose is at the center of our Guiding Statements model – followed by Vision, Mission and Values. Clarifying your organization’s purpose is a key step towards emotionally engaging your team behind a bigger idea than a strategic plan. And it often becomes a driving force behind the value proposition to your customers. We typically help leaders define their purpose after probing deeper on where they want to take the business, clarifying the company’s core strengths and understanding trends in the industry and competitive offerings.

5. Re-branding begins with your people

Once leadership has clarified the path forward, sales and marketing will soon be ready to share the new brand promise to customers and the marketplace. But prior to an external launch, it is critically important that your internal team clearly understands the promise and is ready to deliver upon it.  With the Guiding Statements in place and the brand’s promise crystallized, leadership can confidently present the strategy to the entire company. A top-down, company-wide, multi-stage process is the most effective. The goal is to take people through the journey of: hearing, understanding, believing and living the brand.

6. Consistency and continuity results in clarity

Successful branding is the result of an experience – it’s an outcome based on the brand promise. The best approach is to identify all of the major “brand touchpoints” and make sure that there is consistency and continuity across the cumulative experience. The common adage of “walking the talk” applies here, as the fastest way to destroy a brand is to make promises you don’t deliver upon. When your team is aligned and living the brand promise, the company doesn’t need to rely on an expensive media campaign –  your customers will feel the authenticity and experience the true value of your brand.

Remember, all successful businesses change over time

If you are reading this, you are likely an executive who is looking for opportunity on the far side the current crisis. The pandemic has thrust change upon all of us. Change is often not easy to accept but it can also be a spur to innovation and lead to something much better – personally and professionally.

As a final word of encouragement, new research*** suggests that rebranding during times of recession can be better for long-term brand value than in times of economic growth.

As you evaluate the future of your business and seek opportunity out of adversity, we believe a thoughtful brand development process will allow you to confidently move forward and maximize your business potential.

* – Source: Datasite, April 2020
** – Source:  ACG New York and Chief Outsiders, April 2020
*** – Source: World Trademark Review, May 2020