Q&A: As Brands Hit the Reset Button during COVID-19, Consumer Connection Takes Priority

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As our world faces new levels of disruption caused by COVID-19, brands are acting swiftly to protect their bottom line while adapting to customers’ newfound constraints and concerns. Although these short-term remedies are necessary, what kind of impact will they have in the long-term?

According to David Mayer, brand strategy senior partner at global creative consultancy Lippincott — the better question is: How can you make sure that your response is meaningful for customers, becoming a source of support rather than tension?

David recently sat down with AW360 to discuss what a ‘Go-to Brand’ is, the current landscape of brand strategy amid coronavirus fears and how brand leaders can authentically keep a pulse on their customers.

AW360: Describe Lippincott’s methodology of Go-to Brands. How does this approach better measure brands’ current and potential success?

Go-to Brands are the brand’s customers seek out, care about, consult with, open up to, and are happy to be seen with. They create meaning in customers’ lives by delivering two things: connection and progress. Consumers today are looking for a more personal connection with brands that champion their worldview and values. Equally important is a brand’s ability to enable progress for customers, whether by solving a larger societal problem or making a smaller quest in daily life easier.

When connection and progress reinforce each other a brand becomes resilient, earning permission to innovate beyond category boundaries and build the goodwill needed to withstand potential missteps made in times of crisis. While it’s becoming harder and harder to become Go-to, the prize is bigger for brands that succeed. Our research showed that Go-to brands are likely to see five times more revenue growth than brands that fall short in delivering connection and progress.

AW360:  How can we apply the methodology to understand the current state of brand-to-consumer relationships? 

These challenging times provide an opportunity to better understand the current state of brand-to-consumer relationships because functional, emotional, and social levels have all changed. The way consumers were being served is not the way they want to be served now and possibly for the next year (or years to come). Brands can ensure their service or product delivers progress by “working like magic.” But their mindset must also be “how can we advance our customers’ worlds?” which is critically important, and requires empathy and creativity.

Companies that act first and in a demonstrably different way get enduring recognition. They don’t act reactively or incrementally; provide a straightforward commitment to your customers. The connection comes from the confidence that brands have their customers back.

AW360: What should brands do to create real meaning in people’s lives? Any particular brands that have achieved this successfully? What are the biggest challenges to establishing meaning for consumers during this time?

We’re adapting to a new normal that is polarized between hyper-demand (grocery, insurance) or a catastrophic drop in demand (retail, aviation). For each category, Go-to Brands create meaning for customers in different ways.

For brands in hyper-demand, ensuring they’re available and remain easy-to-use is critical. Costco was one of the first retailers to ensure its locations restricted the number of people in-store at one time. The retailer also made it easier for customers to line up outside and attached protective shields on registers to limit cashier-to-customer interaction. These quickly implemented operational measures turned a possible painful experience into one that made customers feel safe and eased access to essential products.

Where there is no demand, look to Hyatt. They have partnered with Headspace to provide their guests with digital opportunities for guided meditation and relaxation exercises while staying true to their benefit and brand purpose.

Additionally, there’s a great deal of empathy and understanding right now that everyone is in a very difficult position. To keep customer connections strong, the main approach we’re seeing many Go-to Brands take is helping communities and people in a way that is still anchored in authenticity to what that brand is and who they are.

Luxury goods company LVMH, for example, is producing hand sanitizer to meet high supply-demand. Hotel chain brand, Hilton, is providing food daily to essential workers and Airbnb is offering shelter for medical practitioners. It’s about prioritizing that customer relationship without compromising natural acts of human generosity.

AW360: What advice would you give to brand leaders in this time of change and uncertainty?

Continue to be thoughtful with your brand strategies when the temptation to cut costs strikes. There needs to be a balance between recognizing what your brand wants to be known as an understanding where your consumers are going, and how you, as a brand, can continue to be relevant to them.

In the wake of past crises, companies that balance operational efficiency and invest in marketing development have done much better in winning the hearts and minds of customers. Even if there’s no immediate demand, there’s a huge benefit of staying visible to consumers. While survival is the primary focus, businesses that also plan for a bounce-back become long-term winners.

AW360: Where do you see the future of brand strategy going? Are there emerging trends out of the COVID-19 pandemic that will bring about temporary or permanent changes?

Brand strategy remains as important as it ever was, particularly where category boundaries are blurry and consumer needs are uncertain.

Regarding emerging trends, we won’t know if consumer attitudes have permanently changed, but we can expect major societal change. For example, the Black Death was credited with ending feudalism, the Spanish Flu led to socialized healthcare, and World War II brought women into the workforce. Will there now be an aversion to living in denser environments or gathering in large groups? Will people be comfortable travelling? 40% of Americans don’t have $400 in the bank to cover emergencies. How will they cope with unprecedented unemployment once government aid is exhausted?

While we can’t necessarily predict which changes in consumer needs are temporary versus permanent, it’s important to explore a range of likely outcomes. Necessity is the mother of invention and brands need to be nimble and experiment in order to stay ahead of fluctuating customer needs.

AW360: Is there anything else you would like to cover or address on this topic?

In uncertain times, people look for leadership and reassurance. Brands are a beacon that can help navigate companies and their customers through this turmoil. I’ll leave my fellow brand leaders with this thought — Ask yourself: As a customer, in my new situation, what could I want or expect from a company promising whatever your purpose says? Don’t timidly follow the crowd, be bold and brand-led.

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