Key Take Outs: Rebooting your brand/business in the post Covid-19 world

Rebooting your brand / business in the post Covid-19 world

As businesses plan for life after Covid-19, a crisis with no precedent, how do they approach a world challenged by economic recovery? That was the topic posed to a panel of four industry experts today in the World Media Group’s third webinar, hosted by Damian Douglas, Managing Director EMEA, Time.

Douglas framed the conversation by looking at where we are in the news cycle and the financial markets. While both suggest we are in recovery mode, the situation is still fragile. The crises of recent memory (the dot.com bubble 2001, the financial crisis 2008) were economic in origin, and neither led to mortality or unemployment on such a significant scale, which adds another layer of complexity. When previous playbooks and recovery strategies can only be indicative, how can businesses build or rebuild brand equity through a period of huge disruption?

Douglas began by asking Louisa Loran, Vice President at Maersk responsible for the company’s brand communications strategy, how the logistics firm, which is instrumental to the global supply chain, had handled the Covid-19 crisis.

Strong customer focus

Loran explained that when she joined Maersk, her challenge was to understand how an asset-driven company could become more customer focused as part of its digital transformation. The decision to become customer-centric proved its worth, firstly a few years ago when they had a cyber-attack and now during Covid-19. “It’s the ability to understand your customers and put together value propositions and solutions to match their needs that enables you to be successful,” she said. “So Covid has been business management for us, not crisis management.”

Gordana Buccisano, EVP Global Client Transformation, Havas Group, who works directly with Loran on the Maersk business, agreed. She said her role had not changed through the crisis – she was still focussed on both long-term brand positioning objectives and short-term commercial objectives supporting Maersk’s digital transformation. “Covid or not, what matters is having the agile mindset to be able to adjust,” she said.

Authenticity is still key

Douglas then turned to David Wheldon, Vice President at WFA and the former Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for RBS, to ask what we should be looking for in brand behaviours, and how brands could build consumer preference, particularly against challenging economics. The key is authenticity, Wheldon said, and “a brand, knowing what it is and what it does, and doing it in the right way, with the right tone.”

Referencing Wheldon’s time at RBS, Douglas asked what the sentiment around that brand was when he joined in 2015, following the damage to its reputation in the 2008 financial crisis. Wheldon described RBS as the “least trusted brand in the least trusted sector.” His first job was to take an honest look at what RBS was: “A failed attempt at building a global brand.”

He discovered that the Royal Bank of Scotland brand – what customers who banked there called it – wasn’t as damaged. A brand strategy separating out the consumer facing brands, focusing on its customers and telling them the truth led to the bank’s recovery.

Authenticity and value are an important part of Maersk’s new brand strategy. “In the past, Maersk had a perception of being reliable,” Loran said, but they needed a different strategy to grow the brand. “We landed on being trusted, open and brave,” she said. Instead of saying, “We’ll tell you exactly when the vessel will be there,” it allowed them to say, “You can trust us to find the right solution for you.”

Loran believes that being brave is also about being honest and taking responsibility for what you can solve. “There are certain things we do with the strongest belief that they’re the right things, but we also admit our failures when they happen,” she said.

Consumer confidence on the rise

With consumer confidence playing an essential role in how well brands perform, Douglas asked Phillipa Leighton-Jones, Editor At Large – The Trust – The Wall Street Journal | Barron’s Group, to talk about its consumer confidence reports and what they meant for brand behaviour.

Leighton-Jones described The Wall Street Journal | Barron’s Group as a bellwether of what the C-suite is thinking. “These are the decision-makers who will be shaping the economy of the future in many respects,” Leighton-Jones said. “And when you’ve got marketers who are fighting hard for every dollar of discretionary spending, you need to make sure that they know what kind of environment they’re talking in and what kind of conversations they need to be having.”

So what are the decision makers thinking? According to Leighton-Jones more than half of the1000 respondents surveyed across The Wall Street Journal | Barron’s Group expect the economy to get better in the next three months, a 22 percentage point gain from mid-March. They also anticipate an increase in expenditure on personal goods and travel, she said.

Less twaddle, more focus

With that in mind, Douglas asked Wheldon if it was safe for brands to revert back to type and start entertaining us again after months of being circumspect.

“I think people have had enough of ‘we’re all in this together, with you every step of the way’ type communication,” Wheldon said, adding that some of the brands doing it looked “pretty inauthentic” and there was a lot of “twaddle” around. He praised KFC for really understanding their market. While they were closed, the fast food provider encouraged customers to make their own KFC at home and post their attempts on social media, then responded with “relatively insulting” comments about people’s efforts. It went down well because “they understood their audience, got the tone right, and were sensitive to what was happening,” Wheldon said.

Relieving Customer Pain Points

Returning to The Wall Street Journal | Barron’s Group’s Leighton-Jones, Douglas asked how publishers could capitalise on what has been a period of growth, with increased audiences and engagement. “People are looking for brands to talk to them,” she said. “Not necessarily to sell to them, but to demonstrate some value and leadership. It’s always going to be about putting the customer first, and thinking deeply not about what products or services you want to sell them, but how you can solve their pain points.” Demonstrating what she called “edifying utility”, allowed businesses to tell “brave brand stories that are authentic, and that show your leadership,” she said.

How far to plan ahead

Picking up a theme from audience members, Douglas’s final question was how far should brands plan ahead when everything is changing so frequently.

Based on his conversations with CMOs, Wheldon said, “On the whole, it’s a 30 day rolling plan with the 90 day horizon, and financially that kind of works for most people. Because beyond that, how would you know? So zoom in tight on 30 days, and be flexible and pragmatic.”

Loran said Maersk will continue to operate on many levels, optimising on short-term weekly cycles, evaluating their value proposition communications three months out, and planning ahead much further – three to five or even eight years – for their brand architecture and repositioning. What won’t change, she said, is their brand vision “to connect and simplify our customer supply chain,” which is not an overnight turn.

Be bold and brave

Douglas wrapped up the webinar by revealing the results of an audience member poll asking how optimistic they were that the advertising industry would bounce back before the end of 2020. The results, he said, were fairly evenly split (35% optimistic, 42% pessimistic and 23% unsure), reflecting where we are right now with the ever-changing news cycle.

Finishing on a positive note, he pointed out that brands and businesses had “everything to play for” and this was an opportunity to be brave as we navigate clients and businesses through a period that no-one’s experienced before. “As humans we will make mistakes,” he said, “But ultimately, I think we’ll get judged on motive and generosity.”

Should anyone wish to hear more about the Consumer Confidence study Phillipa Leighton-Jones mentioned, please do get in touch with phillipa.jones@wsj.com
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