As it did with the world, the COVID-19 health pandemic has plunged brands into a state of fear and anxiety. But what will “the day after” in branding look like? Will “values–washing” be the new greenwashing? Let’s be humble for a minute: no one has the slightest idea.
Alongside its dramatic and tragic consequences, the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing social isolation have pushed all of us toward moments of revelation. Every one of us has entered a weird state of limbo, mixing confusion with self-reflection, reshuffling our preconceptions about how to interact, work, and consume. With so much uncertainty, it has become impossible to plan ahead. We must live in the present, like some sort of microbe-enforced mindfulness. We’ve suddenly synchronized our lives to a new timezone and a new digital sphere. Isolated, anxious, and through no wish of our own, we’ve been forced to stop and give a new meaning to our everyday lives.
On another level, brands have gone through the exact same experience. After the initial post-shock self-check, they immediately asked themselves two basic questions: what should we do and what should we say? Their reactions varied hugely across the board. Most of them kept their customers up-to-date in an effort not to lose contact. Some took immediate care of their employees’ safety, while others offered their help to hospitals, civic institutions, or NGOs. Many took the opportunity to hurtle themselves into gushing displays of empathy, while a few, on the contrary, decided to take immediate action, sometimes going so far as to transform their production lines to tackle the virus head-on. And of course, there are those who became mute as they totally froze up with fear. Like people, brands have reacted to the crisis in their own unique ways, according to their personalities.
Stop making sense
In an era where brands claim to be driven by strong “brand purpose” and “brand values,” it has been somewhat ironic to see most of them rapidly shifting gears, acting and behaving with no apparent compass – confused and disoriented. The crisis has tested them the hard way and uncovered an absolutely terrifying question that most brand leaders never anticipated: what if brands were dispensable? Perhaps we don’t (really) need them. Perhaps we’ve never needed their products or services to live well. Or live better.
Scary thought no? That’s why we’re now witnessing so many brands investing all of their energy into producing and communicating “meaning” and “values” at any cost. Gone are the days of subtlety as they desperately try to hammer home their relevance, their reason for existing. It is embarrassing. It makes you want to look at the floor. You don’t believe me? Just check your mailbox for a minute.
Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, we see big and small brands alike staying calm, collected, and in control. With an effortless capacity for falling back on what makes them, them, they know how to behave with their employees and customers, how to communicate, and how to adapt to such an extraordinary situation. Their words and actions are aligned. It just feels natural. We can bet they will survive the crisis. The question is: what makes them different from the rest? The answer is simple: they are immune to nonsense.
What we never imagined backfiring on us is the disease we altogether disseminated: the brand bullsh*t. For years, we brand marketers, brand managers, or so-called brand experts watched too many keynotes and TED talks, ate up too much of Simon Sinek’s “Why, How, What,” put too many post-its on walls, and drew too many clever strategy charts. We immersed ourselves and others in a deep sea of brand jargon to create a brand illusion. An illusion of authenticity.
At the top, in the board room or at the founders’ table, common sense, candor, and sincerity disappeared. In the hallways, we were bombarded with values and purpose texts plastered on the walls. On startups’ websites, mission statements ending with “… for a better world” became the norm, no matter if the brand is manufacturing socks, selling car parts, or trading oil derivatives. Empty quotes and words that no one believed in for a second. Purposes and values pulled out of thin air for vacuous brands that – perhaps! – didn’t need to exist in the first place.
Let’s face it: if there is one thing the crisis is showing us in branding, it is that there are way too many useless brands around. We want less. But it’s not just a matter of a thorough spring clean – we want better brands and better branding. That’s why we all need a shot of a branding vaccine now.
The components of the vaccine are self-evident: 1) a HUGE dose of humility, 2) total dedication to the quality of the product or service instead of spending on marketing, 3) a renewed ability to act instead of speak (my two cents here: don’t speak at all if you don’t have anything to say), 4) a switch from a so-called customer-centric perspective to a genuine employee-centric attitude, 5) a growing capacity to bring people together instead of sticking to the habit of constant self-promotion, and, most of all … 6) a persistent will to cut the crap. All the time. Internally and externally.
I have no crystal ball and I cannot guarantee a cure. The branding vaccine isn’t an exact science. But I strongly believe that successful brands of the future focus on people, not branding.
Thierry Brunfaut is the Creative Director and a Founding Partner of Base Design, an international network of studios led by creatives in Brussels, New York, Geneva and Melbourne.