The Responsibilities of Responsive Businesses

Thriving in an Age of Extreme Uncertainty

The retail sector has experienced quite a bit of whiplash as of late. COVID-19 has accelerated the retail apocalypse, claiming more than 190 companies to bankruptcy this year alone. Massive furloughs, brought on in response to lockdown orders, will make it harder for retailers and manufacturers to reopen quickly once it’s safe again.

Social unrest adds to the uncertainty, as people take to the streets in support of racial equality, and consumers demand that brands state their positions and their plans for achieving representative workforces. According to a recent survey, 71% of Americans say “brands have a role in responding to the issues of racial injustice and police brutality.”

As I write this, the forecasters are warning that Hurricane Laura may bring an “unsurvivable” storm surge to the Louisiana/Texas border. And it’s only the beginning of hurricane season. It’s a reminder that cataclysmic climate change adds a great deal of uncertainty for us all.

The nation is also bracing for what promises to be one of the most contentious elections in our history. Brands who weigh in face the threat of significant backlash and retaliatory boycotts. Will the election go off without a hitch? Will COVID prevent many voters from heading to the polls, and if so, will that add to fury over the outcome? If yes, how will that affect the retail environment?

Preparing Your Responses

Everyday something positive and something negative occurs in the world, and there’s pretty much no excuse for brands to sit on the sidelines when their customers want to hear their voice just because those brands don’t know how to respond.

We’ve seen brands of all stripes respond to COVID, issuing statements in support of healthcare workers, and urging folks to wash their hands or wear masks. Some even pivoted their manufacturing processes to produce PPE or disinfectant. We’ve seen all brands respond to #BLM, some giving their response through initiatives like #PayUP.

Staff at AdAge started a blog that tracks how brands are responding to racial injustice.

Some responses have been better than others. Some have been sublime, like the Nike ad that asked viewers to stop pretending there’s no problem in America, and altered its famous tagline to, “For once, don’t do it.”

When it works well it’s not by accident. The brands that have nailed the right tone and message have thought long and hard about the mission and vision that drive everything they do, and craft strategies to support both of those things. The focus goes beyond responding to world events or current topics of conversations. Their missions and visions inform the way they design new products, offer them to the market, and speak to their customers individually.

Their mission and vision drive their identity, and it’s well worth emulating that approach. Note that I say it’s worth emulating their approach to hyper focusing on their identity and not their actual tactics. Your mission and vision is different from Nike’s, your tactics might have to differ as well.

Scenario Plan Your Identity

Your brand identity carries you through the highs and lows of the market and society. You need to understand your identity in times of jubilation — as when America elected its first African American President or when Chelsey Sullenberger safely landed a passenger plane in the Hudson River. And you need to understand your brand’s identity as it responds in times of tragedy, crises, strife or grief.

What does scenario-planning based on identity actually look like? How do you go about it when we really don’t know what humankind or nature has in store for us? Of course we can’t know what’s coming down the pike, but we do know that events can fit into several buckets — national crisis, heroic feats — and that gives all of us a chance to ask ourselves: how should we respond?

Tone is critical here, and you need to determine the voice that most reflects your mission and vision. If you’re a “can-do” brand like Nike, you may want to strike an inspirational tone during difficult times. If you’re a brand that values shared experiences, you might want your tone to be light and hopeful when the world is in a dark place as a remembrance of happier times.

What’s important is to develop a plan of attack for every type of scenario — joy, jubilation, tragedy, crisis. That plan should be a solid understanding of what your identity is, and the best tone to take ahead of time. You’ll also need to identify indicators that tell you it’s time to put out a statement in response to an event. If you’re a Carhartt type brand whose mission is to offer rugged clothes to workers in dangerous jobs, a statement may be warranted when coal miners are successfully rescued from a collapsed mine. Your indicators are specific to your brand and customers, and driven by your mission and vision.

Don’t Lose Sight of Your Identity

Your identity is driven by your vision and mission, which is likely to be extremely stable, but not inflexible. Reformation may be necessary if the trends and events alter your universe in significant ways. (The Constitution may be “perfect,” but it still needed amendments/a Bill of Rights.)

That said, no brand should ever lose track of its identity. It’s interesting to me that some of the brands that have recently declined significantly or even gone bankrupt are those that lost track of their identity. Take, for instance, Ralph Lauren. For 30 years RL was the definitive lifestyle brand, one that many others tried to emulate. But the company began to lose its way once consumers moved on from the lifestyle Ralph Lauren offered. It also expanded into too many categories which diluted the vision. Once, the name Ralph Lauren invoked scenes of living the good life on a safari holiday. Today when I hear the name I think of cheap sheets in Macy’s. They’re not alone. JCrew, The Tailored Group have all suffered similar crises in identity, and have gone bankrupt recently.

Normally, bankruptcy isn’t the same as certain death. These brands may rise again, recovering sales lost to newer brands and re-engaging their customer base. Or they may not. One thing I know for certain is that they need to reestablish who they are and then “overplan” for the future based on that identity.

The year 2020 has been uncertain to say the least. If you’re looking for advice on how to be more responsive with your marketing, reach out to us, we’re here to help.

Brian Lange

Brian loves spending time with his wife and four boys. He’s focused on learning more about what’s next in commerce.