Accelerating change through brand
The Covid-19 pandemic brought life as we knew it to a halt, with most of the world appearing static and unmoving. However, under the surface, seismic change was happening.
We saw ‘pivot’ become the buzzword of the business world. We saw national and international social movements calling for systemic change. And we saw consumers change behaviours overnight, some of which will last beyond lockdowns. Never before has there been a year with such global change touching all but the most remote communities.
According to a recent report from LinkedIn and Edelman, the era of fake news means consumers and employees are putting more trust in brands than in governments. Brands can no longer simply be spectators or commentators. They must now take active roles in accelerating change, and doing it in a way that positively impacts the future.
In this article, we will explore the different kinds of change that affect brands – from forced change to planned change as part of a long-term vision. We’ll highlight brands that have successfully driven change in their market or in society, and how they have achieved this.
Brand’s role in change
As humans, our immediate reaction to change is often negative, suspicious or reticent. That means change is often hard to implement, and even harder to maintain. One of the central tenets of change management is to create a story of change that communicates the vision, the future state, the benefits, and clearly maps the journey in a digestible way. People involved in change need to understand how it relates to them; how their roles will change, how it will change their behaviours, what they will get from it. This is where a solid brand strategy and positioning can help; visualising the future of the business through an aspirational vision, a differentiating visual identity or an engaging campaign story.
Brands can no longer simply say are ‘committed to change’ or greenwash certain aspects of their business. Their brand positioning needs to come from deep in their organisation and flow through every touchpoint, every product and every process. They need to action change and create a shared responsibility with their customers to accelerate that change. This is the next level in customer engagement and what customers have come to expect.
“In uncertain times, by telling and amplifying positive stories, offering factual information and solutions, brands can use their platforms to distribute helpful information and connect stakeholders to resources, countering negative macro sentiment with purposeful and (where possible) optimistic messaging.” – LinkedIn & Edelmen: Trust in a Time of Uncertainty
Responding to change
The catalyst for many transformations and changes can be an unexpected shift in society or industry, which forces brands to then respond in a way that keeps them ahead of the curve. This could be due to scandals, environmental changes, pandemics *ahem* or new consumer expectations driven by wider societal change. In these scenarios, some brands are forced to change in order to remain relevant to their audiences, or to keep trading. By keeping an ear to the ground, and being quick to pick up on consumer changes, brands can ensure they respond to change effectively and at speed.
Speed is key in responding to change, as we have seen over the past year, and companies clear on their vision and brand story are more easily able to change at speed without damaging their brand value. This is because any change in positioning or offering should align in some way to your strategic vision and your customers’ perceptions of your brand. Sometimes this means tweaking your messaging or positioning but shouldn’t require a complete start-from-scratch approach where all previous brand equity is thrown out the window.
For example, fine dining restaurants pivoting to offer at-home dining experiences have needed to find ways to communicate their in-restaurant experience at home. The Michelin-starred L’Enclume team pivoted to providing ‘Simon Rogan at Home’ and succeeded in bringing their pre-COVID values through into their new offering; translating a focus on sustainable products into sustainable packaging and translating beautifully plated dishes into QR codes on the dish packaging to provide customers with follow-at-home videos showing them how to plate their dishes to recreate a Michelin-starred feel. Whether this trend for in-home consumption continues is yet to be seen but being able to provide a coherency, if not consistency, of brand experience during periods of unexpected change is a huge advantage.
Another good example of a brand pivoting its services during periods of unexpected change, but remaining in line with longer term strategies, is Airbnb. Following travel bans and lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Airbnb started to offer ‘online experiences’, supporting their host community financially whilst helping them continue to connect with their current and potential customers. The popular home rental brand’s mission of creating a world where you can ‘belong anywhere’ gives them a lot of freedom to widen their offering while still telling a coherent brand story. Their recent strategy of creating ‘experiences’, as opposed to just holiday lettings also helped them move more quickly into this online space. They have a set of brand values which helps to set a culture of innovation ensuring that constant evolution, creativity and focus on community is at the heart of their business strategy, no matter what comes at them.
On the other hand, we’ve seen brands such as Debenhams, who were already struggling to differentiate themselves and transform to meet new consumer expectations before the pandemic, all but disappear. Debenhams’ digital offering was bad, and its story had lost relevance. Their reliance on physical retail meant they were totally unprepared for lockdowns and the need to compete even more for digital retail space.
A huge number of consumers have sought out new brands and online offerings during the pandemic, and 60% of them expect to integrate these new brands into their post-pandemic lives. This is a warning to brands never to stand still, to always be evolving to meet changing consumers’ needs and behaviour.
On the other hand, some brands choose to create the change instead, setting long term visions and goals for the future, and invest in brand and design to communicate these visions to customers and staff. Here, the goal isn’t rapid change due to factors outside a brand’s control; it is instead a slower and deeper approach to create positive future change, with the aim of influencing society and industry to then follow suit.
Brands must take responsibility for their role in creating this change for the sake of future generations, and look at how they can transform themselves in order to transform behaviours. Setting new, positive behavioural trends is possible (and essential) by brands that are already trusted and respected – these trends must be based on positive change, not short-term profits, offering a platform for change in the future.
Patagonia, the beloved brand of dads and hypebeasts alike, is a prime example of a company which is living and breathing the change they want to see. With a focus on sustainability and fairness, Patagonia is a trailblazer for conscious consumerism, with social activism flowing through every part of their brand. From their supply chain, through to the sales of their clothes, Patagonia is true to its vision and communicates this commitment at every touchpoint. They demonstrate their commitments through real-world action, with recent campaigns such as ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ asking serious questions of consumers before they decide to buy another piece of clothing. On their website, Patagonia has dedicated sections, reports and explainers, breaking down how and what they are doing to minimise their footprint and calling out other brands who aren’t doing the same. This consistent approach sets them apart from their competition and has resulted in massive revenue returns along with their loyal fan base.
It feels important to mention the phenomena of ‘Greenwashing’ here. A practice by brands that dishonestly capitalises on issues of social justice, in order to gain more customers and give a false impression of contribution to positive change. All changes, visions and goals must be properly embedded into the business and culture to ensure the values are authentic and genuine. If these commitments are surface level and simply talk, then consumers will see straight through it and turn away from them – Pepsi and Kendall ad anyone?
Evolving with consumers
Brands must be brave – they must be open to change and open to reflect on themselves to evolve and continue to grow. Are they still relevant? Are they creating change for good? Are the competition communicating their vision better? Change is a constant, whether planned or unplanned, so brands must always be ready to flex to shifts in behaviours and needs, forever evolving alongside their consumers.