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Opinion: Through the Looking Glass- Getting the Basics Right

As we deal with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, emotional connections with brands that are brave and inspire have become important, writes Luke Reaper. But we need more of them.

 Covid-19 struck with such a sudden force and intensity that the great majority of us were literally stunned. The shock is made more overwhelming because the waves of operate simultaneously at different levels; Physical, Personal and Social Self, Financial, Anxiety.

Reflecting about brands and branding in such a maelstrom can appear to be churlish and slight, but if we consider that Covid-19 has brought on the greatest economic shock the world has ever experienced then there is something worthwhile in it.  Covid-19 will cease and there will be a new environment, or ‘new normal’ to deal with, rather than a return to the old one. It is fashionable to talk about ‘everything changing utterly’ when this is over, but much behaviour will revert to before, albeit with twists in this ‘new normal’.

Essentially, we need to step back, think, reflect and get the basics right.

There is wisdom in simplicity and thinking about basic principles.  The definition of a brand, for example, has become complex in the last decade.  The original product makers and developers – usually also the owners – ‘branded’ these to ensure their customers could expect certainty, consistent quality and relevance, and yes, trust.

Not so different to the great brands of today.

Another tenet that we might gainfully remember from Marketing 101 is about brands delivering meaning.  In a sea of products and product complexity brands offered a roadmap to consumers.  In the West, especially, brands established a pattern of meaning for consumers in coming to be seen and felt to represent various archetypes, and being related to different needs even within similar product areas – think about bottled water and then Ballygowan, Fiji, Pellegrino, Evian, etc.

If there was one thing we learned in the last economic crisis (just a little over a decade ago), it was that brands that remained active during the crisis emerged best in the recovery.  That may be a lesson easy to forget in the current mega crisis (learn from history), but if we reframe it as ‘Brands that respond, stay active and relevant’ then the lesson may be nearer the mark.

Some haute-luxury brands in China, for example, whom we might have expected just to shut down, decided to entertain stuck-at-home people by hosting online events (without trying to flog product, which would have been a distasteful mistake).

Forest Avenue, a great Dublin restaurant known for a modern upscale take on high quality food and inventive menus in a ‘neighbourly’ context closed very recently but the brand re-emerged in a few days: the physical restaurant was turned into a food store, with an emphasis on high quality local fresh and organic produce, inventive prepared meals and retaining the all important ‘feel’ of neighbourliness.  Old dance – new steps. We are currently seeing outlets such as Whelahans in Loughlinstown delivering wine and now they have a Covid-19 drive through! Necessity is the mother of invention.

This dynamic of expressing the brand in newer, imaginative and relevant formats can perform as a template for many brands.

Researchers and planners will know of many companies who have conducted explorations into brand ‘essence’, but who, for various reasons, have not always expressed aspects of these essences.  In the current environment there will be room to release dormant parts of brand essence – a brand in which people have belief, for instance, and which is felt to be protective and comforting will be relevant.  Here, however, it is important to emphasise that just saying things will not suffice – it will be necessary to act out the essence.

As we move through the crisis (and eventually out of it) previous traits of bling, flash, ultra-conspicuous consumption to part of brands will come to be seen as crass by many.  Basic product integrity – the ‘stuff’ that is branded will likely be to the forefront, favouring respected local Irish products, but also those such as Jameson which have invested strongly over time in product quality credentials as a key component in their brand identity.

Studies for companies by B&A in recent years have pointed to the factor of ‘the people behind …’ as an important consideration in total brand management.  As the crisis unfolds, we have already come to an appreciation of ‘the people behind’ in the areas of health and social care (but also in food – farmers – and supply chain – delivery drivers), etc.

The ‘people behind …’ brands will likely become a further and increasingly significant plank, separate from the anodyne phrase ‘corporate reputation’.

We used to play a game in focus groups (we still do, albeit we are online for the moment!) … imagine the brand as a castle.  Draw a picture of the castle.  Now tell all you can imagine about life within the castle …

There were rich tapestries produced by such creative sessions, but also sparse and thin scenarios.  The best and most involving castle stories were always generated by the best brands which maintained a relevance and connection with consumers.

This is most unlikely to change in our ‘new normal’ world.

The ‘new normal’ has yet to be defined, however it is likely to involve physical distancing for a while, even when we are released back into the ‘wild’. Thus, to use that awful term ‘consumer journey’, people will get their lives back on track in stages (or be on a ‘journey’ back to normal lives), while we await the vaccine. This makes emotional connections even more important. We need the brave, creative power of brands, as we move through the phases, to inspire – who will step up?

Luke Reaper is managing director of  Behaviour & Attitudes



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