By: Paul Sears
Modern life had already transformed the idea of brand. As the pace of change continued to accelerate, consumers became more and more fragmented and storytelling moved further outside the brand’s control. The beachhead of brand loyalty washed into a sea of choice and immediacy. Gone were the days where product and service defined the brand – experience, purpose and social responsibility were the new currency.
And then COVID-19 happened. We thought we might briefly cocoon in spring and quickly reemerge to a flat curve and a near-normal life. Yet here we are in the heat of summer, still at home, still social distancing and still unsure what back to school will look like for the upcoming school year. We’ve taken to calling it the “now normal” since it’s clearly here to stay.
As the world copes with unprecedented change, brands must prove they are essential if they are to survive. That means being even more dynamic – bringing the future roadmap into the present, innovating product and service delivery, streamlining operations, and inventing new business models. That means finding faster pathways to customer insights, to stay two steps ahead of emerging customer needs. Throughout these transformations, a brand must also remain true to its core, reaffirming why its customers view it as essential in the first place.
The need to be dynamic creates tension between truth and trajectory. A brand that honors its core truth reinforces its customers’ trust and loyalty. Yet every new product, every new acquisition and every new executive hire hurtle the brand forward along its trajectory. Unchecked, these moves have enough kinetic energy to shift the brand off its center of gravity.
To keep pace with transformation, we must speed up the process of slowing down. To guide effective innovation, brand leaders must pause and answer the fundamental questions – why will customers give us permission to enter this new market and how will we serve customers consistent with our values. Brand leaders need a finger on the pulse of evolving customer behavior in order to rapidly respond with effective new strategies. Yet they must also take time to vet those new trajectories through the truth of the brand. A fast insights framework is needed to speed up the process of reconciling trajectory with truth.
A fast insights framework enables brand leaders to quickly analyze emerging customer trends using real-time data, while also providing clear criteria for brand governance around new innovations. Through AI and automation, customer interviews and ethnographic studies can be analyzed in minutes. Online discussion boards capture customer needs and preferences in near real time. Millions of digital conversations can be parsed to show motivations and barriers along the buying journey. And a wealth of secondary sources provide macro-trends from ongoing studies. A modern data toolkit must be at the ready, along with a smart strategy team to interpret the signals into actionable insights.
Once empowered with insights, brand leaders must then address the fundamental questions that make an innovation effective. Having an established process to quickly align the organization around the why and the how are key. It’s easy to chase a flashy new initiative, but it’s much more costly to walk it back. And if COVID-19 has taught us anything, what the market needs today will probably change tomorrow. Using a fast insights framework, the brand can quickly assess emerging customer needs, iterate new expressions of the brand, and align trajectory and truth to ensure long-term success.
As we all wait for a treatment or vaccine, a chorus of analysts, journalists and brand leaders chant “there’s no going back.” Many new consumer behaviors created during COVID-19 are here to stay for the long haul. The pandemic will leave its mark upon the world, making it more important than ever for brands to be dynamic – with a fast insights framework that helps them stay essential and stay alive.
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Paul Sears is Executive Vice President, Integrated Marketing. With nearly 20 years in advertising, social media, content and brand strategy, Paul spends most of his time helping clients sharpen their strategic focus – at the brand level or for individual products and campaigns.