The world is living through a cataclysmic change moment—one that leads people to talk about life in “before/after” terms. Things are shaping up so differently in the aftermath that there’s a clear demarcation in people’s minds.
It’s a time that will lead to lasting and fundamental changes for businesses and for brands. As the global coronavirus crisis and social unrest around the world continue to unfold, brands—like people—need a little bit of time to absorb what is happening, understand the implications, and lean into what they might need to do or stop doing. Brands that haven’t taken this pause and aren’t adjusting their decision-making are already finding themselves on the outside looking in.
Should it take a moment like this to cause brands to reevaluate themselves? No, but it usually does. Very few companies are really good at disrupting themselves, at evolving their business-value proposition in response to customers’ shifting needs. It’s difficult to do that kind of introspection. But it’s important because current crises—and the world may see more before year’s end—are exacerbating trends that were already on the rise, such as a flight to trust, a flight to reliability, and a flight to reputation.
To stay ahead of those trends, it’s more important than ever for business and brand leaders to adhere to the following three brand truths.
1. Show—Don’t Tell
Brands are traditionally comfortable with words—slogans, taglines, statements—to express their commitments and beliefs. Now, consumers are looking toward brands that take actions to demonstrate what they believe, and I expect brands to be under increased pressure to put their actions where their words are—to actually act in support of their perspectives. Increasingly, customers and consumers are going to have little to no patience for brands that talk about their purpose but do not act with purpose.
And that’s because most people will come through this time with the notion that life’s too short to put up with inaction. People will say: “I don’t have time to deal with the talk game. I need to see action. And I need to see it now.” Across the world, in almost every society, people are tired of lip service versus action. And now they’re more willing to show it, as so many have recently in protests around the world. This is true of political and social issues—and it’s true for brands and marketers, as well.
“Increasingly, customers and consumers are going to have little to no patience for brands that talk about their purpose but do not act with purpose.”
So the margin is closing for brands that claim to be purpose driven but don’t demonstrate that they are—or that claim to have a perspective but don’t act in a consistent way. Ultimately, a brand is a promise: It’s a promise of commitment and quality to its customers. A good brand is a promise kept. And the best brands in the world—such as Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Zappos, and Toms—are clear about their promise and their value to customers, and they consistently deliver on it.
2. Double Down on Commitment
During a pandemic or a global social crisis, brands should be thoughtful about how they are delivering on their brand promise. And I believe that the best brands—those that have authenticity behind their promise—really double down on that commitment. That means asking what your brand can do to support customers in times of radical change and then doing that very thing.
By doing so, brands will have a chance to “stress-test” how valuable their promise is. Is it aligned with the true needs of customers? If it is, it’s not just customers who benefit, but the company benefits, too. That’s what we experienced at Autodesk. Because we are aligned from a values perspective, a work perspective, and a business perspective to serving the needs of the design and make community, we have been able to quickly and tangibly serve our customers in a time of great need—from helping them pivot manufacturing lines to delaying subscription fees to assisting in moving work online.
But it’s not just about having a good promise to double down on. I think a crisis reveals the true identity of a brand. The more a brand has oriented itself around the authentic value it creates for its customers, the more consistently it can rely on that promise in times of crisis.
3. Focus on Solving, Not Selling
With that promise backed by authentic value, brands can focus more on solving and less on selling. The selling takes care of itself because companies are focused on what matters most: solving urgent problems for their customers. Companies do more for their brand reputation by solving a customer’s problem than they ever will by trying to “sell” something during a moment like this.
I have been really impressed by how some of the world’s biggest brands have moved from pitching and selling to solving: Kraft Heinz committed $12 million globally to feeding communities impacted by COVID-19—including 12 million free breakfasts for kids in the UK. Zoom provided free accounts to teachers to enable online school. And at Autodesk, we extended trial access for cloud-based BIM 360 to ensure project teams could continue to work.
But I have also observed brands communicating during this crisis as if they were tone deaf. They seemed unable to pause, reflect, and capture the essence of the moment. Or they were slow to act, which made it seem like they didn’t care or were unaware of the severity of what’s going on. Business as usual—which, for some companies, means pushing the sale at all costs—can be extremely harmful in such situations.
The good news, at least from my perspective, is that 2020 has confirmed a lot of my long-held brand beliefs. It is critically important that brands know who they are so they can be crystal clear with their customers about the value they create. A company cannot be multiple brands; it cannot have multiple faces. It needs to be one brand, with one personality and one perspective. It also needs to be clear about what that is—and then be committed to it. Brands that can truly rally around a common understanding of who they are and what their mission is can take advantage by being ready to respond and serve customers in a meaningful way.
For me, it all boils down to being authentic. Brand authenticity matters. Business leaders can get caught up in hitting numbers and meeting revenue goals, but doing so while lacking real meaning as a brand leads to empty transactions. As the world reverts to the mean at some point—knowing that things will never be the same—that notion of authenticity, realness, and truth behind what a brand says will be paramount.