Why COVID-19 will make brand strategy more important tomorrow than yesterday

When it comes to COVID, there will be a before and an after… many are talking about a new normal and there will be many versions of it… as when is the after.

During the pandemic, our lives changed a way we would not have imagined before. It will take time to understand and analyze the consequences that the crisis will have had on the way we behave, work or consume; Society will have to adapt.

Still we can guess that life will not restart as it was before and companies will have to change their organization, their business model if not their purpose.

In this context having a clear brand and all the elements that composes it is of a paramount importance.

1)    All surveys show that employees who experienced work from home want to change the way they work, only a minority wants to come back to the world where they had to commute and go to the office 5 days a week. If some tasks or functions requires physical presence, for those who can and there are always more of them, work from home is becoming part of the new normal. It will be difficult for a company to hire without taking it into consideration. Many international companies have already announced they will move to a hybrid system. I heard some executives resisting because they still need to control what the employees are doing. On the contrary, many say, and it is supported by some studies, that people worked longer hours when at home*. People know that they will be judged on their activity and achievements not their presence. People are ready to work more and better if they have a clear direction.

Lou Gerstner, best known for having succeeded the turnaround and the transformation of IBM in the 1990’s said: “people do what you inspect , not what you expect”. By giving a purpose, an ideal, entire organization should know what to do without having to be told in detail and be controlled. With more employees working from home, having a purpose and a clear direction will be more indispensable than before.

2)    During COVID, we saw car makers producing masks, restaurants preparing meals to be delivered, taxis delivering them, airlines carrying goods in passengers’ planes. In short, everyone had to adapt. To be sustainable, many industries will have to transform their business model in the new normal, becoming more agile, ready to transform quickly in an uncertain future. In some areas, such as telework, online education, autonomous delivery, virtual R&D in a digital place, the change that occurred in the space of a couple of months can be counted in years. In a country like Japan, e-commerce was multiplied by two accelerating a phenomenon that was already taking place. In the area of real estate or transportation, we saw and continue to see great disruption. Developers will probably have to move from construction of huge office buildings to bigger individual homes to accommodate room to work. What will be the impact of the crisis in a few months and years? It is difficult to predict but will probably be huge. In this context, companies need to reassert their purpose and contribution to society not only in terms of product or technology but in terms of real benefits and particularly emotional benefits. Products and technologies will evolve, needs for functions and emotions will remain. In time of uncertainty, customers will choose the strongest brands, the ones that have a clear meaning as a reassurance of their choice.

3)    The third impact is about inequalities. If on the one hand, wealthy, well-educated and qualified people have very little suffered from the crisis, on the other hand a lot of precarious employees, most of them who could not work from home or did not have the infrastructure to do so, have lost their jobs and are the one who paid the price of the crisis. This is even more true at global level. In the countries where social welfare is not well developed, where many live from international tourism, millions have lost all they had; children had to stop going to school. In many countries such as India for example, millions who were living on ride hailing service, many of them having borrowed to buy a car, lost 95% of their revenue overnight**. We can fear that, at least on the short term, years of progress in health, education, wealth and gender equality will vanish. Companies cannot ignore it and have a moral obligation to subscribe to the protection of the weakest. They have to contribute to the ongoing journey to give to all humanity, a roof, food, education, water, healthcare, mobility and eventually happiness and hope for a better life.

On 29th of May, Japan thanked medical workers for COVID-19 Sacrifice with ‘Blue Impulse’ flying over Tokyo. A deserved sign for workers who are the symbol of purposeful task. Credit photo GG

For many reasons, in this uncertain time, companies have to reaffirm their purpose and reinforce their brand. Brand management is a way to converge on values, purpose and mission and eventually align all parts of the company. Structures will have to adapt, becoming more horizontal, less pyramidal and breaking silos; brand will be the cement to make all parts of the organization working together towards the same objectives. Hiring new employees will not only require a more flexible workstyle but also a purpose to motivate. Brand is the guidepost, the lighthouse that every stakeholder, whether at home or on company premises will contribute to. Customers will choose the brands that will stand out for their reassurance in a time of uncertainty.

Brand is not a tagline or the color of a logo. It the proof that the product or service that customers purchase will deliver not only on value but on social, environmental and fair treatment of all stakeholders and society at large. More than ever, in times of disruption and when need for support of the most fragile is critical, companies will need a purpose and a brand promise to materialize it. This is where you will need The Third Road to articulate and implement it in a collaborative manner.

Guillaume Gerondeau

* https://www.cbsnews.com/news/covid-19-lockdown-work-from-home-day-one-hour-longer/

** https://ola.foundation

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