Brand Building in The New Normal : WTF Do We Do Now?

By Siobhann Mansel,  Brand and Marcomms lead at MakeItGood.io.

‘The New Normal’ has officially replaced ‘These Unprecedented Times’ as the #covidcatchphrase of the moment.

A sort of loooong moment that doesn’t seem to have a full stop.

“What even is the new normal?”, you may well ask. Because what was normal in April was a whole lot less normal in May, and just when we thought we’d gotten used to it in June, there’s a whole new set of new normal about to happen from 4th July, and even that looks a little shaky, frankly speaking.

Naturally this still makes planning brand and marketing activity a tad difficult. Reader. I feel like you might know this already, in the same way that you know how to build a marketing plan but sometimes find yourself running a google image search on “marketing template” (and then deleting your search history), but here’s a reminder to get you in the head space for phase… um… What phase are we in?

Defining The New Normal

First up. What are we dealing with here? Yes, as of next week people will be able to meet with more people. Restaurants, pubs, cinemas, and campsites etc etc will be able to open. Is this the beginning of ‘Relatively Normal’ mebbe..?? The reality is, communities may move in and out of lock down depending on local spread. Social distancing is likely to remain in our current and foreseeable future for god knows how long. Remote and flexible working in some guise is here to stay (tick). Shopping is still, let’s face it, a ball-ache.

This is an ever changing beast, as we’ve discovered.  Apart from anything else, what the Government says we can do, and how people feel about that and how they respond to it, are two very different things. And we’re in the midst of a seismic shift that we’re still coming to grips with.

So let’s talk about what it means from the human perspective which is always the best starting point for any brand and marketing activity; appreciably, this hasn’t been easy for the smaller business. The imperative in the short term has been survival – maintaining staff, production, supply, distribution, cash flow, debt. But now it really is time to think consumer first.

The New Normal as of July 2020 is arguably still: Uncertainty. Anxiety. Disruption in lives and routines. Fragmentation of society and family life. Apart, but more connected. And within all this heightened expectations for business to be available, responsive, authentic, and kind, all within an ever changing landscape.

Be Thoughtful

Homebase and B&Q were praised for their reopening strategy back in early May largely because they put customer concerns at the heart of the thinking – safety first.

Reassurance. We get it. We’ve adapted. You can come, but we’ll keep you safe.

Their approach is a good one to learn from for businesses on the verge of executing their own re-opening strategies. It’s worth remembering that not everyone is ready to hot-foot it to the pub and if they are, they’ll want to be reassured.

Essentially, people need to feel like their needs come first, not the economic imperative driven by the Government. In the early days of lockdown, I received a Boden catalogue through the post. On the back, some honest, sensitively crafted copy from Johnnie Boden, “It’s hard to know what to say right now. It might seem highly inappropriate to show you clothes for which you have no need. But we’ve already made the clothes”.

This kind of brand behaviour should have been part of the normal-normal. It’s what many a brand has been striving for and Covid-19 has forced focus. Whatever your category, product or service, don’t shy from brutal reality. Keep tapping into it and play it back in your own tone to your people and they’ll remember you for it.

Be Useful

What does your brand stand for and how can your brand deliver on usefulness? Back to the B&Q example. They built an impressive content marketing strategy framed around helping people isolating at home with their DIY and garden projects, all of which had a tangible uplift on brand perception.

None of it pushed product directly. Practically speaking, it means investing time and energy into insight research, robust persona profiling and a content marketing strategy and plan that actually delivers.

At the heart of that is understanding what people need and delivering on it through brand behaviours; it can be as simple as making it really really easy for people to understand all the ways they can access your product or service across all your touch points so the experience is positive.

At the other end, The fashion world responded by becoming entertainers and boredom alleviators – they showed up for people in a way that they hadn’t ever done before and it’s leading to fundamental shifts in the brands’ relationships with people, and that is set to continue.

Be Responsive.

And by that, really, it means being an agile business first to enable the brand to respond to consumer needs. It’s closely linked to being digitally enabled.

Early lockdown and the closing down of entire markets highlighted the achilles heel of many businesses. Those that were online, had a direct-to-consumer relationship, supported with data-driven insights had a clear advantage.

McKinsey defines agility as ‘the ability to reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology quickly toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities”. Now, I know this sounds like something for REALLY BIG BUSINESS. Aren’t small business and start ups intrinsically agile?

Honestly, no, not in my experience. Read that back again in the context of your own business. According to more McKinsey, 90% of business execs believe that Covid-19 will fundamentally change the way they do business over the next 15 years, yet only 21%  have the expertise, resources, and commitment to pursue new growth successfully.

I appreciate this might feel like it’s more about the business tech and infrastructure than a brand one, but they’re inextricably linked.

A brand is a promise that is delivered on through an ecosystem of experiences, and if a brand can’t reach people positively where and when they need it, then it’s a problem. Covid-19 is going nowhere anytime soon and the need for brands to adapt and respond is here to stay. It’s a good time to look inside.

In whatever size your business, are individuals within it empowered to respond and adjust without too much hierarchy? Are you able to adjust your decision making and processes quickly to divert budgets in a crisis to build what needs building to create value for people ? And if you don’t have the internal capability, are you plugged into external providers and people to help you get it done?

Don’t Try To Be Normal. 

I’ve re-written this final paragraph three times and then deleted and started again. I don’t have any examples here or any data to back it up because I don’t have the answers yet. But do you know what I think? I don’t think people want normal anymore and I know I’m not alone in this feeling. In  business and brand terms, the tectonic plates have just collided, the earth’s crust has just opened up and there’s no going back to the way we’ve lived and existed. Apart from wanting to get the kids back to school, a lot of people don’t want to go back to how things were. From climate concerns to flexible working, the taste of a slower, less consumer-driven life style precipitated by the Covid-19 FULL STOP has created a shift in the way people think that businesses need to really get under the skin of.

The biggest challenge to business and brand leaders, really, beyond getting themselves D2C enabled and sorting out their email marketing and getting their data ship shape, and trying to ensure the copy is on brand when they’re stressed up to the hilt with their back-end >gasps for breath<, is how to re-think the role of the brand when the world has fundamentally changed.

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Photo by marianne bos on Unsplash

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