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Plan Your Brand Strategy While Under Yellow

Perhaps the scariest part of this economic slowdown (leaving aside the public health threat for just a moment) is the abrupt decline in demand across all sectors. Suddenly, all the customers, clients, consumers and purchasers seemed to vanish. Businesses responded by downsizing drastically. The week of March 16, an almost unimaginable 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. That number will grow alarmingly in the next couple of weeks. As I wrote last week, the economy is racing under a “yellow flag.” Senior executives are pulling out all the stops to save their businesses and hopefully come out of the emergency still in position to rehire those they’ve had to lay off. They’re concentrating on protecting their workforces, stabilizing their supply chains, staying in communication with their home-bound customers, strengthening their financials and generally organizing themselves for dealing effectively with the emergency. But, according to an argument from McKinsey & Company this month, that won’t be enough. Management must respond to the short term necessities, of course. But not if that means taking their eyes off long-term planning.

I know of at least one national retail chain that’s had to close all their stores and lay off all their sales associates. Regional managers are working from home. Their immediate focus is on staying in touch with laid off employees, keeping them in the loop and giving them the opportunity to be heard. They’re regularly communicating with customers to keep those ties strong as well and let people know the “tribe” is still intact. They’re also running through scenarios for when the pandemic ends. What are the plans for reopening the stores and rehiring the staff? Open all at once? Or city by city as the threat subsides? But none of this fills up a work day.

So staff is also working on “things we haven’t had a moment to get to in a while”. Like an F1 team under a yellow flag, they’re taking this slow time to focus on strategy and planning. They’re reviewing internal processes and methodologies. They’re assessing their retail management software. They’re reviewing their HR policies and updating their employee manual. They’re questioning their professional representation. Do they have the right legal team? Insurance coverage? Banking relationships? Could their leases be any better? Could their supply chain be more efficient? All these things, relied upon and taken for granted in the past, are now being examined under the microscope.

Ask Boardwalk to develop a brand strategy
that will endure through this crisis and beyond.

They’re also reviewing their brand strategy. With that, it’s doubtful they’ll find much to improve. They already have a very strong brand. (No, they’re not one of our clients. I wish.) But they’re taking the opportunity, while the customers are staying away, to ask how this pandemic will affect their brand relationship with their market. Will that be different in a post-COVID-19 world?

The virus is very real. Every American family is going to end up knowing someone who has contracted it and, hopefully, survived it. Unfortunately, some countries simply do not have the resources to fight it. The death count could be staggering. Survivors around the world will be traumatized. There is bound to be some sort of societal PTSD. How severe will it be? It might seem crass and tone-deaf, but responsible management of any retail operation has to consider how will it affect shopping habits.

Over the last four or five years, I’ve written repeatedly in Brandtalk that the best time to conduct a brand strategy exploration is during a strong economy. After all, that’s when most businesses have the resources to invest in it. But, during boom times, many managers feel they don’t have the time to devote to such a strategic undertaking. Now, with the customer base mostly gone, the cash might be tight. But most management teams will at least have the time.

Here’s a quote from the McKinsey & Company article:

“Immediate and effective response is, of course, vital. We think that companies are by and large pursuing the right set of responses … But on many of these work streams, the longer-term dimensions are even more critical. Recession may set in. The disruption of the current outbreak is shifting industry structures. Credit markets may seize up, in spite of stimulus. Supply-chain resilience will be at a premium. It may sound impossible for management teams that are already working 18-hour days, but too few are dedicating the needed time and effort to responses focused on the longer term.”

If you’ve already built a strong brand, you’re patting yourself on the back right now. It will help see you through these uncharted waters. If you did not invest in your brand when times were good, I truly feel for you now. Your customers are gone and you’ve given them no real motive to return to you. You can offer them no emotional benefit for doing so. You’ve become a commodity. So, yes, I”m advocating that you use the current “yellow flag” conditions to develop a brand strategy. It won’t help you much right now, though, through the immediate crisis. It takes three to four years for a brand to grow into full strength. But, if you start now, you can build a strong brand relationship with your market that will give you a little protection now, and make you invincible during the next downturn. That’s my wish for you.

Warren Buffet once likened a business with a strong brand strategy to a castle with a moat. It protects the business from all sorts of assailants. If your business does not have the protection of a strong brand, the coronavirus is scaling your walls right now.

BEST BRANDING READS – WEEK OF MARCH 30, 2020

Marriott’s Crisis Response Defines Brand Leadership
Click through and watch the short video. It’s perfection.

Billionaire Mark Cuban Just Gave Businesses a Valuable Lesson in Crisis Leadership
Your market is watching to see how you respond to COVID-19. Every business leader should read this.

8 Brand Storytelling Structures
The author has clearly been thinking about this for some time. Good read.

How Amazon Thrives On Being Misunderstood
A fascinating illustration of disruption with some telling quotes from prominent execs who misjudged Amazon.

Dissonance: Walking the Tightrope of Design Disruption
Good to push the design envelope. Bad to push it too far.

New Logo and Identity for Cruise
The new “logo” is pretty cool but I don’t see many practical applications for it.

Compiling Your Brainstorming Results into Real Business Names
I’m dubious about the author’s technique. Still, this is one of the better articles on naming that I’ve seen in the general business press.

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Best Branding Reads
Week of May 25, 2020

Nation-Branding Soft Power: The Case of Brand China
An engrossing, tragic case of China’s recent brandicide.

How to Build a $100 Million Brand People Love
A really good case study from about four years ago. Worth the short read.

Seeking Sustainability, Finding True Brand Mission
Best possible outcome today. Best possible outcome tomorrow.

Brand Relevance: The Strategy Behind “i’m lovin’ it”
A fascinating deep dive into a slogan with 15+ years of success.

Worst Logos Ever, Redesigned.
Italian designer fixes some really bad logos. Oh, they are so very bad!

Dieline Awards 2020
Best packaging of the year. You see? Something good has happened in 2020.

5 Reasons Empathy Drives Business Success
Hard facts about the soft skills.