Opinion: Post-pandemic branding begins now
Let’s face it. Few will have encountered this sort of mayhem in their lifetimes and it's unlikely we will see the light at the end of the tunnel anytime soon. But the end of the tunnel is there, and so is the light. I could rattle off an account of modern epidemics to make my point, but you're here reading this, and I'm here writing it. And humankind, despite some nasty nicks, has made it through some very unpleasant business.
While we are in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, crisis control is the order of the day for most brands—pick your analogy: firefighting, whack-a-mole and so on. But even today, as we fight the fires, brands need an end-of-tunnel vision, a post-pandemic Nietzschean plan to emerge even stronger from that which did not bring us down.
This post-pandemic plan is about what you must do in the present to further the brand’s interests in the future. When done right today, it preserves and augments the equity of the brand and readies it for successful recovery. Executing the plan requires four actions:
Obsess about the brand experience
Most brands are in the line of fire as the large-scale disruption of everyday operations has significantly affected customer experience. Brand perception is forged in the crucible of crisis, and brands need to make sure they are doing everything right by their customers to manage this disruption. Don't be the cruise line that is being investigated by Florida's Attorney General for planning to mislead customers about the risks of COVID-19 to nab more bookings. Take a prime precept of experience design to heart—if you screw over your customers when they need you most, they will neither forget, nor forgive. Conversely, this is your chance to win over a customer for life.
Be good to your people
Mark Cuban reminds us that the way brands choose to treat their employees now will shape their brand perception for decades. Yes, everyone is watching, and they're not likely to forget how you treat people. Because consumers are people too. And executive compensation had better take a significant cut before furloughs are even whispered about. Leaders at companies like Disney and GE have taken pay cuts, although most cuts relate to a salary that is a small percent of total compensation. This crisis calls for more than token gestures; brands should be bold enough to protect today's jobs with the profits from the boom that will follow. Such actions will pay rich dividends in attracting not only customers but also talent to the company.
Be useful, not clever
Enough with the cutesy social-distancing slogans. Separating arches is clever; paying your employees is much better. To be truly useful, find convergence between the unique circumstances presented by the crisis, the pressing needs of customers and the capabilities of the company. Learn from how Walmart threw its corporate infrastructure and logistics might at the post-Katrina crisis and got essential supplies to stranded Gulf Coast residents even before the Red Cross or FEMA arrived. During the COVID-19 crisis, a long list of companies has founds its useful purpose: Brooks Brothers is making masks and gowns, Tito's is manufacturing sanitizer, and Dyson designed and built a new ventilator in just 10 days.
Hold your high-value customers close
When it's business-as-usual, it's a wise practice to pamper your high-value customers. When business has gone to hell in a handbasket, it can make the difference between recovery and bust. Your brand will have to allocate scarce resources across clamoring masses; use data and analytics to develop actionable value segmentation and over-deliver to your highest-value customers. They will lead you out of the slump once the crisis has abated. Delta Air Lines, directly and severely impacted as travel has evaporated, has gone out of its way to accommodate the most frequent and loyal Delta flyers, putting their concerns above the brand’s own short-term financial interests. These are the very customers that have the power to tilt the economics in favor of the carrier once travel returns to normal.
Brand leaders have a bit of breathing room behind the first responders of business. That is why, even though much of their activity will be spent addressing exigencies on the front line (not including the aforementioned social distancing logos), they have to keep their eyes on the prize. Brand and marketing leaders must look to the brand that will emerge in the months and years to come. Brand is an asset. It's something that is diligently cultivated and nurtured, and now is the time to banish the myopia that can cause incalculable harm to brand value and plan ahead for a post-pandemic world.