When Facing Unprecedented Times, Here Are Ways to Future-Proof a Brand

What worked yesterday for brands no longer works today. There is a whole new set of customer behaviors and attitudes companies must acclimate to when doing business during trying times. True disruption is required to survive — and thrive in the future. The traditional playbook for marketing of brands needs to be torn up, reconfigured and put back together. Consumers more than ever need to be part of the process, and brands need to adjust.

To prepare, here are a few ways to make a brand future-proof and stay top of mind.

Brands need to further embrace AI

As typical consumer behavior is being upended and shifting in new directions, brands need to figure out how to adapt — and quickly.

Rather than throwing darts in the dark and trying to land a bullseye, technology needs to be further integrated into a brand’s strategy, with the strongest tool being artificial intelligence.

Granted, the creative world has, to a point, begun to embrace AI — more so for execution than initial development. AI examples include programmatic advertising, custom pricing and cross-selling opportunities. While a step in the right direction, it’s not enough to future proof.

Brands need to continue to incorporate AI into their strategies to make even more data-driven decisions, which will be a key way to differentiate themselves from competitors, especially those in the digital space. (For instance, in May of 2020, Shopify reported that the number of stores created on its platform grew 62 percent in a six-week period during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning more brands are launching and looking to compete.)

Areas where AI will play a bigger role in marketing (and help gain a competitive advantage) may include a larger integration into social media, including machine learning for a smarter hashtag generator, determining what type of content get the best ROI in various industries and dissections of posts, such as drilling down to what color or backdrop receives the highest engagement.

There could be AI opportunities in building brand awareness through the press, helping improve outcomes by using data to determine what angles and outreach strategies to implement, along with what outlets could provide the right audience for their needs. This not only can be utilized for product launches and company news but also help brands navigate their messaging during challenging times.

The technology may also be used to fix the current disconnected customer feedback loop, allowing companies to more efficiently gain insight and information from their user base to accelerate product development.

Many companies aren’t sure where to start, as AI requires a large investment in technology to reap the rewards. Indeed, overall adoption of AI in businesses that are even aware of the technology is only 20 percent, according to a 2017 McKinsey study, with 41 percent stating they are unsure of the benefits. However, if implemented correctly, the payoff could be considerable. In another McKinsey report examining AI, researchers found that in various use cases, its deep-learning capabilities have the potential to increase value by 30 to 128 percent, in comparison to more traditional analytics techniques. Think about it: These supercomputers have the capability to generate millions of possibilities and outcomes in seconds, running simulations on branding decisions that can help a company push the needle forward and make smart, cost-effective decisions. And the technology will only improve as time goes on, meaning the sooner that brands can implement AI, the sooner they can stop throwing darts in the dark.

It’s important for brands to look at what areas they can automate with AI, how to incorporate AI into their business goals and the various strategies needed to achieve the biggest return on the investment.

Brands need to take goodwill to the next level

Social entrepreneurship isn’t anything new; huge corporations companies have been doing it for decades. In fact, it is believed that the term social entrepreneurship first was used in 1953 in the book Social Responsibilities of the Businessman by H. Bowen, in which he delves into the ethical obligations of corporations and what impact they should have on societies. Charitable donations and philanthropic arms became in vogue over the years – and still are very much needed.

So, while not novel, what is different now is there is more emphasis on what ways companies are authentically giving back: how are they integrating it into their mission to handle various social situations vs. being a standalone initiative, like a charitable contribution.

The generation that tends to pay the closest attention (and is also the largest spender) is Millennials, with Gen Z also making headway. But during unprecedented events, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, all demographics watched how brands responded. For instance, during COVID-19, 89 percent of people wanted brands to shift their strategy to make products to help people during the pandemic and to offer free or low-cost goods to health workers, those on the front line or people at high risk, according to a report by Edelman.

As for Black Lives Matter, there have been plenty of companies putting out statements, but some are going above and beyond that. For instance, Humble Bundle, a storefront for video games, announced a $1 million fund to support black developers. And some businesses, like ASTRO Gaming, donated $15,000 to small businesses in Minneapolis. According to Morning Consult polling, this is the right thing to do. Seventy-three percent of Millennials and Gen Z state they view brands more favorably that support protesters, whereas 39 percent of Gen X and Baby Boomers said the same.

But not every brand hit the target.

Take a look at what happened to Pepsi and Walmart, when the two companies teamed up for a COVID-19 testing site in Orlando, Fla. The brands put up a huge sign letting people know they can get tested at a local Walmart. But they also added opportunistic corporate branding — a person holding a Pepsi and the tagline, “That’s What I Like” next to it and Walmart’s logo and the words “near Walmart #908,” on it. It didn’t sit well with people.

After a huge backlash on Twitter, the sign came down, with a Pepsi representative telling Huffington Post, “This was an unfortunate mistake by one of our local sales associates that in trying to move with speed to get this important testing message up did not follow proper approval protocols.”

This could have long-term implications on the companies, with 71 percent of people believe that if a brand puts profit over people they will lose trust in that brand forever, according to the same survey by Edelman about brand trust and the pandemic.

During trying times, consumers take notice of what brands rise to the challenge, along with which ones fail. If a brand hasn’t yet integrated a strong social purpose into its mission, it needs to start now; it will be the new normal moving forward.

Brands need to plan for the new normal

When a major crisis hits, companies go into survival mode – thinking about what needs to be done to get through it. But they also must think long term: what must shift in their business’ framework to be successful going forward? How should they be talking to customers? How do they work with partners? How can they be better prepared for their employees?

It’s a fine balance, between the long and short term, but it is a balance businesses must figure out. The short-term decisions must lead to long-term health.

Businesses need to focus on ways to be financially sound; they need to build up a cash reserve to weather other storms. Also, internally brands must reevaluate their model: what is working, what isn’t, and where they can invest more time and money on innovation and experimentation. They must consider a wide range of scenarios and be prudent in tracking performance.

Brands must immediately look at how they can support employees: what needs to be done to motivate their team, ensure they stay healthy and are able to put food on their table. But they must also have plans and proactive long-term strategies in place to make employees feel more confident so that when uncertain circumstances arise again they are secure and stable.

And finally, they need to figure out the best way to support their customers. Brands must connect to build loyalty, gain insights and learn what areas and messaging need to be adjusted to build better rapport. They need to create an open dialogue on social media to maintain an ongoing conversation with the community, so when these storms come along again, consumers feel like they are being backed by the brands that are so prevalent in their everyday lives.