Research – and first-hand experience – shows brand strategy is the tool businesses cannot do without as they work through the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 explains Principals’ Tim Riches.

Brand marketers and consultants would be feeling vindicated and validated thanks to Gartner’s 2020-21 Annual CMO Spend Survey which ranks brand strategy as the most vital strategic capability for CMOs grappling with the new world order COVID has brought about.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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From experience so far this year, this emphasis on brand strategy is all about the adaptation “unprecedented times” require of organisations; taking the opportunity a fluid environment offers to make positive change.

We’re seeing brands that think of themselves as challengers re-examining what exactly they’re challenging: yesterday’s problems and enemies might not be so motivating right now. It’s critical to dial-up trustworthy credentials, sharpen value propositions and be in touch with the shifting cultural landscape to maintain customer relevance.

Big brands are focused on personality and human connection. It’s an important time to strengthen likeability and positive social impact for big brands, especially those that may be growing during this difficult period. While people gravitate to the security of big players, brands that thrive commercially and improve their social license will reduce the risk of community resentment and even government intervention, and surely experience the most sustainable advantage.

It’s also a great time to work on customer “pain points” that trigger negative advocacy, especially if they lag behind the standard people expect. In times of heightened anxiety, pressure on household incomes and, frankly, more time spent on social media, bad experiences can be extra damaging. Especially if you’re making lots of money while your customers are doing it tough.

The lines between brand, purpose and values are often blurred – but more so now than ever. We’ve recently worked with several professional bodies and healthcare institutions on purpose and values as the core of their brand. This makes particular sense when the organisation plays a distinctive, even unique, role in the community. And when the significance of that role is impacted by COVID-19, then it can be an appropriate time to evolve its identity as a for-purpose organisation.

The importance of insights

Insights have never been more central to developing recommendations that enable confident decision-making because it’s simply unsafe to assume the conventional wisdom of your category holds true right now. At a minimum, insights equip project owners to field “surely this is not the right time” challenges that might derail a project.

Digital qualitative research, in particular, has been integrated into most of our current projects as either insight “ingredients” or customer feedback loops to strategy and creative development. Through this research, we’ve found instances of shifting needs and behaviours in big ways and small, and sometimes just a helpful reassurance that established insights still hold true. Both minor refinements and significant shifts to our strategic and creative recommendations have resulted.

The time for brand management discipline

Many companies are trying to do more, and do different, with less time, money and people. It’s very challenging. But it’s also the right time to focus on the disciplines of brand management because they create the efficiency and effectiveness demanded by a resource-constrained environment.

Clear, evidence-based brand strategy. Useful, actionable tools like decision frameworks, guidelines and design toolkits – especially UI kits – that work. Making sure those brand codes are present at every touchpoint, because who can afford poor attribution right now? 

Brand experience principles that connect CX design decisions with brand strategy, because as you adapt product and service delivery, you don’t want to dilute the brand. Brand voice, in particular, is important as more of your people interact with customers and sometimes need to deal with challenging topics.

From one point of view, you might say there’s nothing new here. Brand strategy has always been about these things.

But the view from the trenches is that there’s an extra sense of urgency and a focus on the connection to business strategy that is sometimes, oddly, absent. And an openness to new possibilities, a willingness to question the sacred cows, a Zoom-enabled informality of conversation that actually creates quite a productive context for brand work.

Even here in Melbourne, while the people might be locked down and infection numbers going up, there’s an energy that comes from the challenge of adaptation and brand is a key part of that process.