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In the Future, All Brands Will Be B Corps
Ten ways to reorient your brand strategy to revive your business
I write weekly newsletter about how the new forms of social, cultural, and environmental capital change brand strategy. If you enjoy this issue, please like it above, share it with anyone you think may find it useful, and subscribe below:
Crises are great truth-tellers. Brands are, in real-time, going through the crash course in social responsibility, and there are already winners and losers. Winners acknowledge what their customers are going through. Losers are pitching Mother’s Day sales and charging premium for medical masks on eBay.
Crises tell the truth about a company. They expose organizational and operational strengths and weaknesses. They challenge leadership. They bring on business disruption, revenue drops, layoffs, and the pressure to reduce expenses and find new ways of making money.
Crises seem to particularly accelerate transformation of industries that are already in flux, like publishing and retail. Publishers are preparing for 30 percent drop in forecasted revenue; the figure for fashion retail is between 25 percent and 35 percent.
But crises also offer a creative toolbox. They force thinking and acting differently, and force businesses to address problems in new ways. In the process, a business may stumble upon a great new idea, discover an unexpected revenue stream, take a risk it was too cautious to consider before, or find a way to be closer to the community it serves.
If there’s one lasting change from this crisis, it’s that brands will have to become as much pro-social as they are pro-economic. Here is what works:
Put the strategy behind your brand. The first step in any good brand communication is always to acknowledge your customers’ needs. All of us right now need some inspiration and uplifting communication. “Get up and get dressed for a positive state of mind” works better than “shop 50% off.” In the bizarre display of tone-deafness, Armani Beauty is offering 20 percent off, with a code BLOOM. How about code COVID? In contrast, DTC brands that lead the way. On the Bright Side is a new digital series revolving around food, art, and wellness, launched by olive oil producer Brightland: “In these times of uncertainty, we hope we can still inspire you to continue #livinginagoldenstate.” There’s also Joycast, is a free text line from a swimwear brand Summersalt, sharing meditation videos, GIFs, self-care ideas, and general hope. Brightland and Summersalt succeed because their output isn’t about them. They also succeed because they use the tone of voice that’s uniquely their own.
Distribute your expertise in a new way. Brands’ survival depends on their ability to package and deliver their expertise beyond their original business model. Even if consumers are not spending at the moment, they still seek acknowledgment, inspiration, advice, guidance, education and entertainment from brands. What once was a value-add is now a brand’s lifeline. This doesn’t mean that every brand should put up meditation videos and playlists of monks chanting. It means that it needs to lean into its own expertise - be it finance and economics, manufacturing, supply chain management, operations, or Instagram creative. Offer business development courses centered on remote working; help startup founders to become financially literate. Every company has a number of areas of expertise. Capitalize on them. We’re seeing this with fitness companies sharing their expertise through online classes but also fitness regiments, cookware companies leading brand actions with recipes, food companies putting forward a healthy outlook, and hospitality companies delivering perks like sound baths at a distance. There’s a massive opportunity for other verticals to capitalize on the shift from products to content, from events to subscriptions, from transaction to inspiration, from buying to socializing. Consider it a necessary business adjustment.
Amp up your services. A number of restaurants, pharmacies, grocery shops transformed into drive-throughs. Revenue from food delivery overtook dining on premises even before the coronavirus pandemic, a trend that is only accelerating. It is also getting more nuanced. Online shopping sites will take a cue from theme parks, ski resorts, fitness studios and some restaurants who provide variable ticket pricing per date, time, or location, and offer discounts for less busy days and charge extra for peak times. They will move beyond rigid ordering and delivery process and create a more flexible and a more tiered program that ranges from high-end concierge care to basic delivery, and that is also customized per what’s in one’s cart. There’s also need to go beyond just-in-time systems, which are convenient and cost effective, but fragile. AI will play a role in projecting demand in crisis - something that supermarkets didn’t have on their disposal this time around. A more flexible thinking applies to online orders and deliveries across industries, from fashion apparel to home decor to pet care to wellness and beauty. The entire area of supply and demand and customer service will rapidly innovate, driven by current inefficiencies and bottlenecks.
Create a new market. When a New York City lockdown started, I begged both my facialist and my hair coloring guy to start the “how to” instructional video series. It sadly didn’t happen: my facialist has two young kids to homeschool and my hair colorist is French. But the market for remote beauty care is immense. Chances are that it will stay that way once the pandemic is over, with far-flung audience wanting easily accessible skincare and haircare expertise. Tmall and Shanghai Fashion week partnered on an entirely live-streamed, “see now, buy now" fashion week, where designers and brands present their upcoming collections directly to 800 million active users. That’s a game changer. Or, Metropolitan Opera started nightly live-streaming its past performances, which is both a public service and a potential way to expand its market and build new revenue stream. Chef Massimo Bottura, from GUCCI’s new LA restaurant, is streaming cooking lessons, “Kitchen Quarantine,” from his own kitchen. Beyond the pandemic, this kind of content and chef exposure can be a great restaurant marketing tactic and a value-add. In an accelerated future scenario, opt-in live-streaming may become a preferential mode of advertising for lifestyle brands: tune in and see live entertainment and demonstration of a cookware, an outfit, or a way to apply beauty products.
Put social responsibility, sustainability, and corporate transparency at the forefront. Personal experience of hardship makes a difference, and there is hardly a better time to accelerate brands’ corporate transformation toward greater sustainability, more transparent corporate governance, and more socially responsible operations. Just as those living in poor countries feel the effects of climate crisis more disastrously than those living in the developed ones, we are becoming more attuned to global emergencies and to the role of our social, politics and economic institutions in addressing them. We expect our brands to embrace their social responsibility and act on it. Every brand should start thinking like a B Corp.
Activate behavioral contagion. Coronavirus pandemic will hopefully give rise to another form of contagion: social and behavioral. Ask: how can I activate my brand community to do something good in society? How do I set the example of positive influence that trickles down to my customers’ communities? What can my customers do in their communities, and how can my brand start it? In the past, smoking rose and fell thanks to it; today, some activities and areas, like food and sustainability are subject to it. We are all fasting, juicing, and doing lymphatic drainage massages. If our neighbors install solar panels, we do it, too. Our instinct to imitate and conform should be used for good (the hope is that buying Zara may one day become as uncool as smoking). Right now, we are seeing examples of social shaming for exhibited lack of social distancing; once the pandemic is over, brands can do social good by encouraging behavioral mimicry (and not just in terms of Instagram aesthetic). Brands with already existing communities, like Glossier, Doen, or Tracksmith can use peer pressure to impose positive social action. But any brand with a customer base, from Coca-Cola to Unilever to LEGO, can also mobilize peer pressure. Peer pressure changes both our behavior and the way we view the world and is a powerful tool towards more generous, responsible, and compassionate behavior.
Recognize that, for your customers, a slower pace of life is a good thing. Before the global pandemic, it was popular to discuss the damage of social media to our brains, psyches, and social lives. Artist Jenny Odell wrote “How to Do Nothing,” about resisting the attention economy. Doing nothing is what most of us don’t know how to do. This pandemic is a good opportunity to learn it. We all loved hearing about the benefits wasting time and the dangers of hustle porn. Now it’s the time to embrace it. Our belief that we are too busy to cook, exercise, sleep, watch TV, see a doctor, shop for clothes, or get over a jet lag led to an entire economy based on outsourcing and delivering these services. We will become busy again, and we should use this forced time off to create a more balanced existence. In it, we can free of guilt set the time aside for cooking, going for a walk, checking in on friends, and helping the elderly. Brands can enforce this narrative shift through their advertising creative: don’t show busy professionals, show someone cooking with their grandmother who survived coronavirus epidemic thanks to the protection of her community.
Capitalize on restraint as the new aspiration. Macroeconomic changes following the coronavirus crisis will undoubtedly enforce economic restraint. Our current social distancing may enforce a societal one. We may become more likely to consider impact of our individual actions on our community and aware of collective benefits (or lack thereof) of our decisions. Brands can capitalize on restraint as the new aspiration by putting forward social values of generosity, compassion, and gratitude, and acting on them through their content, communication, and brand behaviors. There are car companies encouraging drivers to stay off the road, and travel companies encouraging people not to travel. This is a social service that should continue post-crisis.
Shift from the outside to the inside. If the latest trend in the modern travel is any indication, the affluent travel for learning, not leisure, and for transformation, and not thrill. Fixing broken pottery, enjoying rituals, or retreating to a monastery required a trek across the world. But they can also be practiced at one’s own home. It’s good for our planet if we stay in. It’s good for us to sit quietly. We should learn both. We may recognize the superficiality, mimicry, impermanence, and stupidity of chasing the latest Instagrammable street, neighborhood, or vista. In contrast, live-streamed sound baths or at-home recreation of Japanese listening bars may bring us equal delight, save the planet and our money. Brands can play a big role reducing the thrill of chasing ever-new experiences, and helping us absorb better the experiences we already had. These experiences can be both communal and personal (a reliving of the e.g. London Olympics, a SuperBowl, remembering that Berlin trip or the vacation from last summer). Partner with content producers and curate branded compilations of movies and other content for your customers to watch at home.
Consider launching a new product line. In 2017, the global market for “incident and emergency management” was valued at $75.5BN. By 2025, it’s projected to reach $423BN. Brands from Pottery Barn to Naked to startups are launching their survival kits. It may become something in every brand’s product portfolio going forward.