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dollar bill under a magifying glass showing the We Trust text on the dollar bill.

Branding in the New Normal

Regardless of when and how things get back to “normal,” a “new normal” is here and brings with it unprecedented change in how brands need to position themselves before an audience with heightened sensitivity, cynicism, and concern for safety and social injustice.

For decades, scholars in top business schools have been preaching that the only objective a company should have is maximizing shareholder value. In the new normal, that seems about as antiquated as an overhead projector. Both Millennials and Gen Z’ers have been advocating for companies to go above and beyond the focus on maximizing shareholder value for some time. The new normal is only intensifying the sentiment and expanding it across generations.

While boomers and Gen X’ers used to obsess more over the aspirational aspects of a brand, they are now shifting with younger generations’ priorities of what the brand does not just for “me,” but for society at large. While brand owners used to take a neutral or passive approach on social, political and/or controversial issues, today brands are taking a stance. 

On a general level, various studies show that Millennials and Gen Z’ers embrace authenticity, trust, uniqueness and ethical behavior, while older generations were more concerned with premium and luxury brands and the status symbols they represented. In the new normal, we’re seeing all generations moving towards the younger generations’ values. 

A June 2020 brand trust study by communications firm Edelman shows that the pandemic and systemic racism have raised consumers’ expectations on how brands need to address these issues in order to gain their trust. And trust, it turns out, has emerged as one of the key variables in the decision making process. According to the study…

  • Trust is the #2 decision-making factor (53%) in which brand to consume, second only to pricing (64%).
  • Across all generations, 70% agree that trust is more important than in the past.
  • 74% of respondents agree that a brand’s impact on society is the main reason why trust is now more important.
  • 80% want brands to help solve society’s problems.

While few brands have taken proactive steps, many are waking up to the new reality and making fast moves to address the trust factor. When the Colin Kaepernick kneel down took place, most brands remained quiet, fearing a social media or PR backlash if they took a stand. Nike, on the other hand, launched a massive billboard campaign unapologetically featuring Kaepernick’s face with the copy “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” It seemed like a risky bet at the time, but one that most consumers align with in today’s environment. And it wasn’t that long ago. This past week on the NFL’s opening season games numerous teams and players took a knee in the name of social justice. Most notably, players on the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks agreed to kneel in protest during the first kickoff of their opening game where Seattle kicked off and Atlanta neglected to return the kick. Instead, all 22 players on the field took a knee.

In today’s environment, it appears that the biggest risk may be not taking one, as companies are taking a bigger hit for their passiveness as opposed to for their actions, however controversial these may be. Facebook recently experienced an advertiser boycott, which had a strong impact on brand equity, if not as much on its income statement, because of its mishandling of hate speech and misinformation within its platform. Consumers are flocking from Home Depot to Lowe’s as they feel their values are misaligned with the former and tightly aligned with the latter. Amazon has also benefited as e-commerce continues to skyrocket. However, they would be smart to revise their values and practices, how they treat their employees, their minimum wage policies, etc. Consumers continue to fill their Amazon carts like there’s no tomorrow, but if the company turns a blind eye to how it affects society in general, it will certainly face a backlash and a bleaker tomorrow.

So many companies are waking up to the new normal and taking radical measures with their brands. Most notably Quaker Oats’ and Mars’ retirement of the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s brands respectively, or the renaming of the Washington Football Team. All associated with racist sentiment, there is simply no room for these brands in today’s normal. 

Rebranding is not limited to the marketing department, while operations folks were mainly preoccupied with maximizing efficiency and profitability, today safety and customer trust has risen high on their agendas. Taco Bell recently redesigned not just its brand, but also its restaurants’ drive through paths to accommodate for a safer and social distancing traffic flow. 

Many marketers ask themselves, when is a rebranding necessary and to what scale? The answer is to constantly keep your finger on the cultural pulse. It is clear 2020 has brought about  unprecedented change, crisis, unrest and uncertainty. These changes have accelerated and intensified the trends that were already underway. The days of sitting it out are over. Marketers need to thoroughly understand the new reality and assess how that affects their core audiences, their industry and their brands. 

Branding is not about your logo or your messaging, it is about your brand’s ability to deliver the best possible brand experience. As the world and cultures evolve, experiences change and the challenges brands face are to adjust the course and stay relevant and aligned with the new realities. Today’s reality has changed at an uncommon velocity, and demands that we act fast. But more importantly, that we act. We can’t sit this one out.

About the Author:

Carlos is Founder & CEO of brand consultancy THE MACHINE. With over 20 years of omni-channel marketing experience both client-side and agency side, he has helped define, position and grow blue chip brands like Giorgio Armani, Ferrari, Walt Disney, Jameson or WebMD, as well as tech startups like GiftCards.com or Compass.

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