Building brands for an anxious world

What used to be about creating brand differentiation in an age of abundance is now about staying relevant in an age of turbulence and customer expectation is moving faster than ever, says Manfredi Ricca, global chief strategy officer at Interbrand

The current economic and cultural environment is one of near-constant change. And customers are changing too. From #Metoo to the coronavirus pandemic, from Black Lives Matter protests to seemingly endless political upheaval, what is relevant to a customer can change instantly and dramatically.

And what’s relevant to a customer – what’s happening in their lives right now – affects how they make decisions. What do they value? What do they need? What do they hope for? So brands need to adapt just as fast as the customer to stay relevant.

The most enduring legacy of these anxious times will not be face masks and political graffiti, but the end of continuity as the default assumption. The sheer scale, speed and impact of the COVID-19 crisis is forcing businesses to plan for disruption by innovating around principles such as duplication, agility, modularity and diversity, while putting their customers at the heart of that process.

Recently, we have seen major shifts in consumers’ mindset. Customers are likely to ask three questions: “Is it safe?”, “Is it valuable?” and “Does it mean something to me?”. Those are the three new types of universal need or desire, which we define as safety, trust and meaning.

These three dimensions could well become the platform for a new contract between organisations, consumers and society, and become the new fundamental drivers of choice and demand.

In this dynamic environment, our role at Interbrand is to help clients stay ahead of customers’ expectations to stay relevant. To do this, we combine three lenses, which cover the three fundamental elements of any market: people, businesses and their interactions. What we call human truths, economics and experiences.

For more information please visit:

A living manifesto for these times

We’ve created Brand Leadership for an Anxious World. It’s an open, living platform and we welcome contributions that add to its depth and relevance. Here are just a few of the propositions, selected for their relevance to the customer conversation and ability to spark important, brand-redefining changes.

1. Make your customers your advisers

How can you change your operating model to see the opportunities your customers can? Don’t view your customers only as targets or data points, but as partners. Be inspired by what inspires them: their hopes, dreams, realities. Listen and build with them. Decide with them where to focus resources, especially when these are limited.

“The number one lesson I’ve learnt is always check with consumers – the outside world is often braver than you are. We co-create with our customers, which means they tell us about their experiences and hopes which give us opportunity areas to focus on. We’ve been able to humanise a functional product like a sanitary pad by seeing feminine care in the context of women’s whole selves – while everyone else in the category still focuses on the absorbency of blood. We sometimes face some pushback whenever we suggest new work that addresses taboos. But customers can ‘speak to power’, they can say ‘this resonates with me’ and it’s harder to argue against. When we launched, consumers celebrated our brand across the globe, because we recognised their experiences and made it possible to talk about them.“

Tanja Grubner, Global Marketing and Communications Director, Essity FemCare

2. You might be selling an “if”, not a “what”

How do you increase demand by building flexibility into the core of your offer and business model? To survive, business models must evolve and organisations have to pivot. But the customer must be at the heart of these shifts. You need to remain relevant, and a brave leader will change mindset to embrace transformation and possibility. Create or, even better, co-create with customers flexible purchasing scenarios. For example, experiment with returns, trials, date changes and so on, and test these scenarios quantitatively. Measure their impact on the share of choice, ultimately building a business case.

3. See your brand as a liquidity engine

Are you aligning your brand strategy and metrics to your liquidity requirements? Headwinds in demand will create an increasing focus on protecting, preserving and raising capital. If on the defensive, hunt for capital. Make your brand the stalwart for value creation, future revenue and balance-sheet strength, attracting investor backing and securing liquidity. And if on the offensive, hunt for under-leveraged assets. Identify and map out potential acquisition targets. Look closely at their potential for short and long-term value creation.

4. Ambition, not just purpose, creates investor FOMO: fear of missing out

How do you define an ambition that is a worthwhile investment? While a lofty purpose is necessary to appeal to various stakeholders, it can blind you. A clear ambition will guide you. Set an inspiring, credible and measurable ambition with a definite time horizon. It will excite and drive your people, and take them to the edge of possible. It will build and communicate leadership focus and accountability, and give investors clarity, confidence and interest around your potential.

“In times of crisis, unpredictable and fast-moving events create an environment of uncertainty, and can leave individuals feeling disempowered. Since joining Philips earlier this year, I have a greater appreciation of the power of brand purpose to drive teams to success in even the most difficult times. At Philips, our brand purpose is to improve lives through meaningful innovation. It is possibly more relevant today than it has been over the course of our 129-year history. Our purpose has become a guiding ambition in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, helping instil confidence and clarity among customers and employees alike. As the pandemic escalated, we deepened our commitment, understanding that we had a triple duty of care: to our people, to our customers, and to our business. There are examples of this incredible focus everywhere at Philips. Philips remotely trained more than 300 NHS staff across the UK to transform a specific model of Philips’ non-invasive ventilators into invasive ventilators with the ability to effectively treat patients in COVID-19 ICUs. This helped ensure the NHS could make use of the 1,800 ventilators with this capability that were already in hospitals. In the Philips Marketing and E-Commerce team we are stewards of the brand purpose, a role that has become even more important during the pandemic and beyond as we build transformative legacies of which to be proud.”

Lorraine Barber-Miller, Chief Marketing and E-Commerce Officer, Royal Philips

“A clear leadership model is the cornerstone of our behaviors and ambitions, defining the vision of what are the long-term goals along with the ethical values and principles with which to lead the business.”

Massimiliano Pogliani, CEO, illycaffè

5. Someone is rethinking your category

How do you redefine your competition and expand your competencies to thrive in your new arena?The demand for seamless, contactless customer experiences will accelerate the confluence of categories and supply chains into broad competitive arenas. As threats will change and multiply, so will opportunities. Be ready to restart by reassessing your competition and competencies. Identify a new departure point for the brand and speak to customers to identify the way they fulfil their needs across categories.

Also found in sponsored