Wanted: brand optimism and ingenuity

This year started just like any other; a little dreary but full of potential, promise, and new resolutions (most of which were already broken by February). By March, Covid-19 had turned our world upside down and altered everyday life as we know it. It’s been tough but it’s also been a chance to take stock and re-evaluate what really matters. And though it’s threatening the future of numerous businesses, it’s also been a unique opportunity to re-think, re-engage and re-inspire. How brands behave over the coming months (and years) will be crucial not only to their survival, but also to their success.

Phase 1: Optimism in lock-down

It’s not all been doom and gloom. As we entered lock-down, environmental damage improved drastically, we got to work in our pyjamas, and community WhatsApp groups flourished. We realised that, like it or not, we rely on those around us. We’ve shown openness and compassion towards one another. And a significant majority have stood together in solidarity, judging and pointing fingers at those who haven’t played their part.

Straight away brand behaviour was met with similar judgement. The winners have been those that have proven their worth, who quickly reacted and demonstrated camaraderie, ingenuity and generosity. Examples include tech and engineering brands like Dyson, Rolls-Royce and Formula One for their contribution to the ventilator effort, and BrewDog and Pernod Ricard for producing much needed hand sanitiser. Others like the National Theatre and premium fitness brand Psycle made online content readily available. And restaurants begun selling produce and takeaways.

The losers have been vilified; their reputations undoubtedly harmed. British Airways have suffered due to poor treatment of staff, Wetherspoons have faced criticism because of knee-jerk reactions and others have been accused of abusing the government’s furlough scheme.

The overwhelming feeling though is one of optimism and hope. When asked in a YouGov Survey only 9% of people in the UK want the world to go back to how it was before. It turns out we weren’t that happy with life pre-Covid-19, and brands have shown there may be an opportunity to define a future that’s brighter.

Phase 2: Ingenuity for survival

As restrictions ease, brands need to consider how to move on to bigger, better things. Many old businesses models are unlikely to be as profitable – so it’s time to be experimental, to try out and test new ideas. Here are a couple of things to bear in mind:

  • Sensitivity towards your audience

People have changed – at least for now – and so have their priorities and desires. Brands need to be sensitive to what their audiences want and care about, using creativity and ingenuity to appeal to them in new ways. Maybe it’s different opening hours and service experiences. Or outdoor art installations for galleries. It’s about thinking of new ways to connect with and engage with audiences in a way that will appeal to them in the current climate.

But it’s not just about what brands do and offer, it’s also what they say and how they say it that will be crucial. At a time when people feel anxious, and brands are fighting to create excitement and capture attention, it can feel pressurising and overwhelming.  Brands should consider how they can be more introspective, thoughtful and gentle to help people feel comfortable and unjudged as they get back out into society.

  • Balancing safety with experience

The balance between prioritising safety and creating joyful experiences is a fine one to tread for the immediate future. For some, safety will be paramount, especially for older, and more vulnerable people. But there will be those, who are bursting to get out and have fun. They’re bored stiff and have been starved of experiences - the thing people most crave.

Tech-led solutions to minimise human contact will rise exponentially. Restaurants like Ichiran, a Japanese chain, have already developed ‘low-interaction’ dining and there’ll be robot coffee shops, robot hydromassages, drive in cinemas – anything that keeps us apart. But brands need to make sure when maximising safety that they don’t minimise joy. No one wants a sanitised and bland experience – even if it is safe.

Brands should look to create experiences for their customers that minimise risk whilst maximising enjoyment. Selfridges are creating more joyful shopping experiences by offering personal, after-hours shopping trips and have DJs entertaining the queuing customers. And the travel industry is setting up to entice people with big blow-out, once in a lifetime trips rather than multiple, potentially riskier, weekends away.

Phase 3: Opportunity to re-define

What will be really interesting is when we look much further down the line – to when there’s a vaccine, or a viable cure, or it’s been so long that Covid-19 is just another threat that we get used to living with, like driving a car or crossing the road.

How much will we really have changed? Will we slip back into the reality that 91% of us were apparently so unhappy with? The chances are pretty high. We have an incredible capability to adapt and carry on, but also to exceptionally quickly forget any resolutions and revelations we’ve made.

As the world opens up again, I’m sure many of us are already thinking of hopping on a plane for a weekend away. We’ll crowd into shops, theatres and bars. And, in our rush to get back to work and to crack on with our social lives we’ll probably stop speaking to our neighbours too.

So now is the time for brands to play their most important role – to innovate in a way that will create long-term meaningful change, both in their business models and customer experience. In doing they can lead us into a future that really is brighter and better.

We believe there are three things brands must consider when looking ahead:

  1. Think bigger and broader: The crisis has shown that adapting and stretching has been crucial for brand and business survival - and will be just as important for future success.  Brands should look for ways to maximise and diversify the kinds of experiences they offer – physically and digitally – whilst staying true to who they are. Meal kits, cook-a-longs and posh picnics are examples of how restaurants have diversified and reached new audiences, and it’s these kinds of innovations that will inspire success. Theatres can explore ways to broaden access and engage people in different ways – with more online screenings, more versatile settings and even backstage content. Brands should push boundaries and explore how they build a presence across multiple touchpoints and occasions. But they need stretch in a way that reflects who they are – otherwise they risk becoming confusing and diluted for their customers.
  2. Guide and inspire: Brands can encourage us to behave in a way that respects the people we live around and planet we live in, and also can help make sure we don’t just slip back to the way things were. Not only can brands make sure they do good, they can inspire their customers to make better choices too. For example, brands within the travel industry - particularly airlines - can influence the way people travel; they could remove business class (which has double the carbon footprint of economy) and reward people who travel closer to home. Booking platforms could also inspire people to consider holidaying more locally by sharing tips and activities. By giving people better options, brands can shape the way we behave.
  3. Unleash your passion: Even as the world begins to get back to normal people will respond to brands that wear their heart on their sleeve and demonstrate a passion and pleasure for what they do. This means showing generosity and going above and beyond to show customers that you genuinely care and want to engage and listen to them. Creating mutually beneficial relationships rather than one-sided value extraction. And consider making certain content even more freely available, or building local communities. It’s worth brands thinking about showing their human side – it’s not about being perfect, it’s about showing you care.

The Covid-19 crisis isn’t only about health, it’s about life and the way we choose to live it. Brands can play an important role in leading us in a positive direction, so it’s vital we take this opportunity to create real, long-term change that will benefit all of us in the future.