On Wednesday, October 21st, I led a panel to learn about resilience through five very different brands’ experiences. From B2B to B2C, from aspirational to essential, these brands have confronted grueling trials, including economic upheaval, world wars and now, a global pandemic. But these agile marketers are braving the COVID-19 era by keeping one eye fixed on the past and another focused firmly on the future.
Our conversation explored how enduring brands risk falling behind by resting on their laurels, the critical difference between elite and elitism, the importance of trust in products, and why brand should be treated as an investment, not as a spend.
In closing, I asked our panelists: What has COVID taught you about relevance, and what is your commitment to maintaining that relevance for your brand? Here’s what they had to say.
If you look at a brand like Harvard Business School, we have this aura of having been around for a long time, which can also, in some places, translate to being old and stodgy and not being relevant. The push and pull there is to make sure that our heritage means something. COVID taught us to flex muscles that we didn’t know we had. When COVID struck, it was a brand-new phenomenon. There’s no preexisting content that maps to a global pandemic from a business perspective. We are fortunate to be in a place where 230+ faculty are constantly watching what’s going on in the world and reacting to it. They quickly jumped on COVID from a business angle and began to think about it and write about it and form opinions. Our task at that point was to figure out ways to package that thought leadership so that it could be easily consumed by people who are actively looking for information. One of the ways that we did that was to launch a Zoom series. Here’s a brand-new relevant channel that we can use to quickly reach people quickly and timely so that they can consume content that’s relevant to them. We did a whole series of those conversations. We tailed off a little bit over the summer because I think people’s appetite for that content seems to subside slightly. We’re monitoring what’s happening with the way people are consuming content and adjust to that. I think being flexible and building that flexibility into your content structure is critically important to being relevant.
My commitment to making the brand continue to stay relevant is to challenge my team every day to make sure that the stories we’re telling about the school ring true, have great authenticity, and animate the school’s mission, and why what we do is relevant in the world.
—Brian Kenny, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer, Harvard Business School
We have learned that relevance has become a little more granular than we thought in the beginning. We used to think about our offerings and the narratives and the stories when we talk about fulfilling creativity or our digital products when delivering productivity. When COVID struck, we changed our strategies to reflect on this idea of how can you remain productive while working remotely. What are the tools that you could use? And how does our portfolio support that? As we progressed further into the crisis, we all experienced the melding of our work lives and private lives. Productivity time and creative time began to blend into one as we were all sitting at home. So we tested the water by saying, can we have a mindfulness track that runs parallel with the productivity and our original creativity track to enable people to make room for themselves? So increasingly, we started talking about how can you make time for yourself? How do you make sure that your work life doesn’t inhabit your entire life?
We’ve been following what we hear from consumers, what we experience ourselves and try to change our content strategy to reflect that understanding. That’s where meaningfulness also means that we convey to the consumer that we understand their situation because only when you do that can you call yourself consumer-centric.
My commitment is the question of being agnostic. I want to be a brand that supports human development, no matter if it’s on paper or on screen. Whether it’s an introspective experience that I do for myself or something that I do to share with others, I will support that journey and that joy, and ultimately that happiness as long as I’m here.
—Peter Jensen, Chief Brand, Innovation & Marketing Officer, Moleskine
Two thoughts come to mind. One is the need to speak to the moment in as real-time as possible if you’re going to be relevant. Something we did with our Snuggle brand is we pivoted and tried to put out communication that depicted what consumers were going through. One of our agencies came up with a great idea: their creative director shot it over the weekend with his wife and kids as talent; it was a spot about a mom doing a Zoom call from her laundry room and the ensuing family chaos in the background. It harkened to what we were experiencing. At any moment, a small child is like to burst into my office and run through. But it became relatable and relevant. We have done similar with smaller campaigns using influencers or social media, but really speaking to what consumers are going through.
The pandemic also taught me about the importance of consumer trust. If you look at the products that first flew off the shelves when the crisis began, they weren’t always the most popular brands; they were the brands that people fell back to, that they trusted, that they knew and knew they could depend on. There’s been a lot less promiscuity in trying new brands and maybe a flight to the known, to the certain, to the comfortable.
In terms of commitment, I think it’s a journey that we were on before COVID, but certainly, the crisis has amplified it, and it’s to define a purpose beyond just a functional benefit for each of our brands. As we examine purpose, it comes down to discovering that convergence of what you care about, what you are good at and what the world needs. And how do you find that convergence that makes your brand even more relevant within the world? That’s what I want to do more of from a Henkel standpoint. From a personal perspective, I think the recent conversations around racial justice have made me a bit more outspoken about the need for diversity and inclusion within all of our spaces. And we know that within companies, being more diverse as a workforce makes us more productive. That’s more on my personal commitment as a leader.
—K. Patrick Davis, SVP, Head of US Laundry & Home Care, Henkel
The most important thing that happened during COVID was our people and how our people reacted. We had contingency planning for if something happened, but we didn’t have a contingency plan for all offices being unavailable. So we have a 24/7 telephone service. You can imagine how busy that was because we’re a commercial bank as well as a wealth management business, and people needed support there and then. We had to move all of our call center staff to work from home, which was challenging at first. We had to call upon our partners and our people to completely change how they worked. And to be able to deliver, you have to have people that buy into the brand. That is the most crucial part as a heritage and luxury brand, that you’ve got people in there that are passionate about maintaining that.
My personal commitment is to keep pushing. For us, the things that made us very successful, and my favorite things about the organization are where we’ve done something different. We were the first bank to have computer-based banking. We were the first bank to have an app. In the 1970s, we installed a roof-top garden and a glass ceiling in a big atrium. This is a challenge that heritage brands have because people always think about the brand as something that was somehow better previously. And for us, it’s getting people to be more excited about the future rather than nostalgic about the past.
—Paul Fletcher, Head of Marketing, Coutts
It’s about striking the right balance of being flexible to meet your customers’ and stakeholders’ changing needs while also identifying the shared values, which are enduring and remain true for you and them. Having a clear purpose and actionable values is especially important. It isn’t just a statement on a wall, but something that you actually live. We have always prioritized our employees’ health and safety; safety has been a priority at Cargill for many, many years. So it’s not something we just suddenly had to figure out amid the pandemic. We actually had an existing pandemic safety plan that we had hoped we would never need to implement, which we, of course, did.
An inclusive culture that embraces diversity in all forms is key for ensuring that your brand remains relevant. At Cargill, we actually intentionally lead with inclusion. We call it inclusion and diversity. We won’t serve on a board of directors, for example, that doesn’t have female representatives or a board that is limiting in any way.
We are headquartered in Minneapolis, which became the epicenter of racial injustice in May, and we sprung into action of how we can use our voice and actions to effect change. So if you think of diversity being about facts, inclusion is about acts. All of this is key to ensuring that you’re keeping your brand relevant now and in the future.
In terms of commitment, it’s making sure that we’re always using our values when we have to make tough decisions because they do help steer us through changing times. They allow us to be flexible and adapt while remaining true to our purpose. And then also I think a crucial thing for brand and marketing is what is the ROI on that? Treat brand as an investment, not as a spend. By doing so, you are serving both your customers and your business long into the future.
—Karen Kozak, VP, Global Brand, Cargill
This is a biweekly series for brand-side senior marketers. To request an invitation, visit events.siegelgale.com