Kelly O’Keefe is CEO of Brand Federation and former Professor and Managing Director of the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The marketplace is calling brands to step up in a big way. Is yours ready?
For C-suite executives, especially those in middle-market companies poised to break through, the post-pandemic world looks like uncharted territory. Are workforce shortages temporary or here to stay? Does comfort with video conferencing impact more than physical office space? Will the rebounding economy lift all boats? What does innovation mean in a tech-saturated market? What does corporate responsibility mean in a society reckoning with inequalities?
These and other questions about the marketplace ahead present “pivot points” that can make or break business plans. Businesses backed by carefully considered, research-based, strategic branding have a much better chance of making these crucial turns efficiently and profitably.
Why? Because branding isn’t a logo. It’s the promise companies make to their employees and customers and the experience they build to deliver on it. In the wake of a pandemic, shifting demographics and changing social expectations, making the right promise and delivering on it in every aspect of your business is imperative to pivoting the right way.
Take technology. Zoom and other video platforms are revolutionizing office-based workforce expectations and forcing commercial real estate, transit, hospitality and other industries to pivot big time. They also are changing customer and employee expectations. The simplicity, efficiency and productivity of video conferencing forces any consulting-driven business, from healthcare to wealth management, to pivot, too.
I’ve observed that Cancer Treatment Centers of America, for example, recognized this pivot point and reimagined its portfolio of brands to communicate — and capitalize on — a more flexible, patient-centric care experience. Its launch of Cancer Compass creates a physically untethered resource for lightening the load of patients, families and caregivers. The solution is responsive to a clear shift in the market’s expectations of where, when and how information and care are delivered.
The ongoing labor shortage forces a pivot point for brands, too. Here in Virginia, I’ve spoken with a manufacturing CEO recently who can’t find enough skilled workers even after significantly increasing the hourly rate. Professional services firms struggle to find qualified candidates for their teams. Experienced leaders are in high demand, and demographic trends forecast further labor market tightening as Baby Boomer retirements accelerate.
When good workers are scarce, your top people are vulnerable to being scooped up by competitors. And as workers continue embracing remote work, it’s also harder to maintain a sense of team that binds people together. The rise of the independent economy can provide some relief by bolstering skillsets where needed. In a hot market though, demand for top independents is as just as intense, and it can be trickier to integrate them into established teams.
It’s a situation that underscores a brand priority: clearly stating organizational values and beliefs to employees, customers and prospects. Brands will need to work even harder internally than they do externally, setting the tone for organizational camaraderie, conveying support for professional development and anchoring teams that the best people want to be part of. They play key roles in attracting and retaining top talent, a huge force multiplier in the war for talent.
For example, Estes Express Lines has become one of the largest transportation and logistics companies in America, but they’re still family-owned, with a close-knit culture you’d expect from a company 1/10th their size. It’s no surprise their consistently listed in the “Top Work Places” in Richmond, its home base.
But don’t discount a brand’s day job. As the economy’s engine revs up a new “roaring 20s,” it’s branding that will help companies pivot into the wave and ride it.
Winning brands deliver a compelling promise to consumers that meets wants or needs. And they deliver on it with a customer experience through multiple channels: visual identity, messaging, design, in-person and digital interactions and more, all of which shape marketplace reputation and perception. Brands succeed in making connections, however, only when they really know their audience.
What do customers want from your company? What do they get from it? What problems are you solving? Where are you coming up short? What’s your purpose? The qualitative and quantitative research required to answer questions about your company and your market gives brands the power to connect, affect behavior and accelerate growth.
Once the pandemic is over, it’s still the right time to revisit your brand research. Values held prominently by customers and employees in 2019 may not be a priority today and in the near future, a fact that highlights another critical pivot point: innovation.
Innovation, essential to continued business growth, is evolving. As the pandemic recedes we’re seeing the need to innovate more for substance and less for sizzle. Winning brands are innovating in deeper, more meaningful ways and becoming more thoughtful and intuitive.
Take the Adidas Ultraboost running shoe. The innovation here isn’t flashy, but their materials include recycled plastic from the world’s oceans. It’s a strategic innovation that connects the Adidas brand with an increasingly conscientious marketplace that wants more than great shoes. It wants great shoes made by companies that care.
As the marketplace craves substance, it also demands accountability. The murder of George Floyd sparked a cultural awakening for a society that maintains physical and symbolic obstacles that prevent full participation in it. The events of last summer and ongoing movements spotlight societal shortcomings as they relate to diversity, equity and inclusion, another pivot point for brands in the coming years.
Brands that fail to look inward and address DE&I issues, real or perceived, may find the market pivots without them, leaving them behind for competitors that better represent these values.
The opportunities in the coming months appear extraordinary for businesses ready to put the pedal down. Don’t just rev the engine. Shift it into high gear by reviewing and thoughtfully considering the role of your brand, internally and externally, at each pivot point ahead.