The pandemic's new brand order

Brand comms pros will have to constantly reorient their thinking to remain relevant in the post COVID-19 era.

Getty Images
Getty Images

As the world contemplates how we bring society back together and restart our global economy, we know there is no easy fix or switch to flip that will bring us back to normal. There is no normal anymore. And, in fact, the terms "new normal" and "unprecedented" have become the most overused phrases of the century.

It's been an exhausting experience, and, sadly, it's not going to be over any time soon.

The entire situation is unsettling, overwhelming — intimidating even — for individuals for sure, but also for businesses and brands that desperately want to make the right move as the sand shifts beneath us on a daily basis.

It's weighing particularly heavy knowing that continued uncertainty is a given as we progress through the milestones that once marked our lives.

For example, this year's back-to-school period will certainly be the most stressful in recent generations. The holiday season will likely not be as much of a holiday this year. Will the New Year bring new hope? I hope so, but we can't be sure.

How does this translate for brand communications experts, marketers and business practitioners in how we approach the future?

Practically speaking, we will need to continuously reorient our thinking around a new brand order that emphasizes the principles of agility, empathy, inclusiveness and, most importantly, solutions for how to remain relevant in this new environment.

A hyper-dynamic approach must replace strategic planning.

If you think about it, the notion of multi-year strategic planning is gone — at least for the near future. Even the idea of an annual planning cycle will not suffice because without certainty, we simply cannot plan that far ahead.

Instead, planning needs to be replaced by a dynamic, phase-by-phase approach to audience and community engagement that is quick to process change and adapt to ongoing developments and shifts in our environment.

The key question to ask is: How can we adapt our planning framework to process new information and adjust in a timely and ongoing way so that the brand can remain meaningful and relevant?

Purpose has permanently changed — and it has gotten personal.

As people around the world continue to struggle with the virus and its impacts, what matters to them has changed, and so must the purpose that guides how brands operate and communicate. Purpose needs to reflect humanity in this moment and what's important to us now — tangible and immediate needs such as personal safety, basic healthcare, household finance, and access to food and other necessities.

Our communications must be sensitive and empathetic with respect to these needs. The key questions to ask are: What do our audiences need the most and does our purpose (or our values) need to change in order to help them right now?

A shift from product selling to problem solving.

We simply cannot go back to pushing products and services in a promotional way. Even the notion of storytelling as we knew it will fall flat. As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to pulse through society, brands must remain close to consumers and their changing lives.

Brands must live and breathe these mutual experiences as people and communities work through continuing changes and challenges. The brands that get it right will offer solutions that bring value to consumers beyond their products and services.

The key question to ask is: Based on the needs of consumers, how is the business positioned to provide solutions and solve problems — through products and services that truly help people and society?

Serving as a source of strength, comfort and unity.

Brands have already played an incredible role in inspiring resilience and even breaking the cycle of divisiveness, which definitely needs to continue. The road ahead will continue to be strange, difficult, unfamiliar and, at times, lonely.

In addition to practical solutions, brands are in a position to help cultivate that spirit of togetherness that will support and drive the healing process. The key questions to ask are: How can we engage and act in a way that makes people feel seen, protected, and understood? Can we highlight the inclusions and connections that are being made to celebrate what's keeping us together?

The unknown is unsettling, and even more so without a proven playbook or path to guide the way. But by taking a moment to reflect on what's changed and how the principles of agility, empathy, solutions, and inclusiveness apply in our brand communications moving forward, we can focus on the right way to help people and communities cope, heal, and yes, eventually thrive once again.

Jim Joseph is global president of BCW.

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