From branding with a bow tie to branding for survival

An excerpt from the talk held by Aneta on May, 20th in the AMC UniCredit webinar about branding strategy during the pandemic 

At the beginning of every year, we got used to watching every leader, in every industry, trying his/her hand at prophesizing what the new year will bring; in the case of branding, the forecast was along these lines: “more than ever, 2020 in branding will be about authenticity…, about brand purpose, activism, sustainability…, about avatar design and flexible logos…, about influencers…, about back to the basics…, about the new age of privacy,” as well as the usual suspects: “innovation, disruption, digitalization,” etc. Moreover, it was said that branding in 2020 would be influenced by the Japanese brands’ aesthetic (evidently a reference to the year’s major sport event, the 2020 Olympics in Japan :). Obviously, nobody could foretell that this year would be about a … pandemic — and that branding, alongside many other industries, would, with wide-eyed shock, say, “OMG!” or “WTF?!” (pardon my French)!

The thesis of my talk is contained within these questions:
— Is it possible that this pandemic crisis that all mankind is journeying through at the moment, will generate a crisis at the level of branding in of itself?
— Are the times we are living in a litmus test for branding?

Can branding do something, right now, to help business? Or can it merely do harm?

I know and can understand those that wish to believe that the situation will return to normal — that we will return to business as usual, to the same routines, from before the lockdown. Unfortunately, or possibly quite fortunately, I don’t count myself among the adherers of this ideology. This might be because those like me, who have lived through two different socio-economic regimes, who have worked for the last thirty years in divergent cultures and have accumulated around fifty years of life experience, are a tad more cautious, more suspicious when it comes to talking about human nature. About the way in which this inextricable combination of sentiments and actions affect our daily behavior and decision-making processes (including those related to consumption). So — yes, I perceive an imminent crisis, at a branding level, which we will have no choice but to acknowledge in time. Because, if we accept that brands are capable of building relationships with people, through numerous layers — some more emotional, some more rational, or more instinctual — how could these relationships not be affected by the psychological shock (or post-shock) within the emotions of people?

It may sound banal, but there are two things that are particularly provocative in branding (as such we call these triggers), when we speak about “relationship”: human nature and homo economicusHomo economics applied to consumerism (especially in such crisis contexts) is a difficult subject, hence we’ll let the Nobel laureates in economics debate this subject. I’ll just say that from the perspective of fundamental marketing, for example: a sales promotion to promote a product that is not relevant for the state of mind people find themselves in, namely that of psychological shock and self-preservation, does not help! A sales promotion for an item which one urgently needs on the other hand, say toilet paper, does not have to be uttered through the classic lens of human appetite for deals and more value for money (economically speaking). What is certain, however, is that the perspective of financial precariousness that individuals acutely feel in these uncertain times will lead to individuals becoming more price-sensitive, more so than before, which will certainly attract demand for a specific segment of products and services.

When we speak about human nature, however, sociologists uphold that we are either cognitive miser (that is to say, we desire to resolve our decisions and problems as easily and with the least possible effort), or cognitively hungry (that is to say, continuously aspiring, curious, experimenting etc.) With respect to context, to the typology of the generation and even with respect to geographical considerations (Kit, Mihai and I have discovered this by comparing our work between Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia), we all react differently! However, during a pandemic we tend towards cognitive frugality: less interested in anything but safety, certainty, protection, calm, understanding etc.

Therefore, the sentiments that we have been harboring in these months — of fear, anguish, worry (some of us even capable to balance the aforementioned with empathy, solidarity, engagement and social responsibility) produce a new layer in consumerism, namely the “emotional state” of the consumer. McKinsey periodically publishes a report about the emotional state of the consumer across the whole world, and the most recent reads as such for May 2020: pessimism and worry for their health and an economic crisis, a crisis which will last longer than four months and cascade into a deeper economic crisis.

In other words, there is a prevailing sentiment of uncertainty, uncertainty in growth, in future outlook; expectations that personal incomes will diminishimplicitly leading to the reduction in spending, and the reduction in the intention to spend; 

Categories such a grocery stores, food deliveries, home entertainment and digital activities are what make an exception. Soon, there will probably be a peak in requests for holiday, a possible escapism from the uncomfortable emotional situation in which we have been blocked for three months.

A few words of advice for those who take care of brands — as entrepreneurs, managers, and for those who work in the creative services profession:

  • Whenever you are facing a crisis, be grateful for the fact you are, indirectly, pushed to change your perspective. This could be a time to discover new opportunities for your business (I have to admit this advice is more about compassion and understanding, than anything else)
  • Branding has kind of gone downhill in the last few years: it has spun around so many hypocrisies, some many “recipes”, so much BS, that can only turn the consumer off or make them exclaim, “Whatever!” (or worse still, “Really?!”). This means that we as consumers will eventually end up ignoring, or even resenting, certain brands—either way, we have punished the brand or have moved on. I’m asking you now: What is the purpose of a brand, if not to seduce and convince? Or, you could take a minute to consider, what actually seduces and convinces us? I’d say that the answer is something profoundly human — you don’t need great expertise in branding to perceive thisit is about solidarity, engagement, empathy, it is about caring for people, generally speaking — not just as consumers of our products and services, but as engaged individuals! Careful: don’t speak of engagement and empathy, show them!
  • Strategically, one can no longer make long-term plans. Instead, one must be open to continuous transformation: be flexible and create resolutions step by step, week by week. Abandon 360 communication approach! It died a long time ago anyway. Just because it still has some support (from those who would rather defend the business model than the efficiency of the concept!) doesn’t mean it necessarily is relevant today.
  • At the level of typology of messages and tone of voice: a little less “fun”, a little less cynicism; care to the severely limited attention span of your audience. Our attention spans have been severed, meaning that the “Ta-daaa = we’ve got something brand new for you!” approach is no longer appropriate. Neither is “I am the leader, the master of this domain.” Instead, try to transmit reassurance and agility and, certainly, respect the limits of social distancing (an inappropriate neologism, don’t you think?). Acknowledge the category within which you operate and the way you hold a relationship with the consumer.
  • Naturally, the primary pivot is towards DIGITAL — more so than the ‘digital footprint’ of a brand in the past (i.e.: the site, apps, social media etc.) Careful with hashtags, don’t dedicate them a separate site — do this through your brand, first. Then the hashtag comes second.
  • Another important pivot that is fundamental is that of the INTERNAL. Nothing here is merely resolved with “budgets”, but rather with something much more demanding and complex — employees are precious, they must be protected first and foremost, but they must be helped to realize that they, too, must make an effort to sustain the business by which they are employed. I personally believe that the communications industry will contract/shrink/tighten, which will be highly incompatible with certain philosophies and models of business, yet this can be a blessing for firms that are agile, smart, and cross knowledge: these will be the winners of this era.
  • And, I’ve left this idea for last — as we are in a program dedicated towards small entrepreneurs — I have good news for you: although constrictive, and despite the fact that small business suffer and will have to suffer more than larger firms, small brands, indie, local, community and start-ups, will also have an enormous and unique opportunity to become more attractive, more convincing in comparison to the larger globalized brands. Larger brands, which rely heavily on countless bureaucratic layers, might not be quick enough to react and to acclimatize to the new normal, which in turn could be decoded by consumers as a lack of compassion or negligence by stakeholders. Do not miss this opportunity!

Aneta Bogdan FCIM Managing Partner Brandient
Bucharest, May 21, 2020
Webinar: AMC UniCredit Bank