For retailers, especially those deemed non-essential and struggling with revenue, branding may be on the back burner right now. Big mistake, say several branding experts. Who you were before the crisis should inform who you are during the crisis. And who you were was your brand.
“A lot of what makes strong brands is consistency and adherence to values,” says Sean Claessen, chief strategy officer at Bond Brand Loyalty. “Your brand attributes are the ones you fall back on when you have to make difficult decisions. They are the touchstones of your business. They give you a strong sense of who you are, and if you have that, your decisions will be clear and intuitive.”
According to Claessen, those brand attributes are even more important during this crisis as retailers communicate with employees, landlords and consumers. If a retailer has been focused on an excellent customer experience, that should drive messaging to all three groups. If a retailer finds itself in a place of delivering crisis-specific information, as CVS and its competitors are, that should come from a brand stance that emphasizes reliability and trust.
Part of that communication and brand strategy must include social media, which too many retailers have de-emphasized. For example, Ray Carbonell, CEO of Qnary, a provider of executive reputation services, said for retail c-level leaders must focus on clear communication — internally and externally. Carbonell said executives are rightfully worried about urgent issues. But even amid crisis, retailers need to communicate clearly — especially on social media.
“You need to be a part of the conversation, and be where people go first for that conversation, which is social media,” Carbonell told WWD, adding that the “new normal” of remote work further emphasizes the need for consistent, clear and authentic communications, “both internally with teams and externally on social media.”
And in terms of remote work being on brand, Claessen believes there’s a hidden silver lining. Because it is a time of crisis, recovery and response, it’s a chance to take stock of how companies are branding themselves, promoting themselves and looking at some of the issues that were important — rather than urgent — before the crisis. The remote time can be used as something akin to a corporate offsite to evaluate pre-crisis business and how the brand will emerge from it.
“Even for small-to-midsize businesses, I think some of the messages that are most important are that we have taken extra measures to be clean and compliant,” he says. “You also want to extend clarity regarding closings and when you expect to be open. Also think through the details about how you will operate as a digital enterprise. Are you going to extend the grace period on your return policy? Are you now going to offer free shipping?”
Bond’s most recent consumer panel showed that the most important things to communicate to customers when the crisis starts to allow store openings are: first, they are taking extra measures to ensure the health and safety of their physical locations; second, they are still open for business; and third, they are supporting local communities who are affected by the situation. That panel also showed that 32 percent of Americans are likely to spend more on online shopping then they typically do; 29 percent of Americans are likely to spend more on online restaurant delivery in next 0-3 months and 28 percent of Americans likely to spend more on grocery delivery in next 0-3 months. Obviously, eCommerce will be critical.
For Claessen, eCommerce has become a more important branding vehicle than physical stores, but it may not have been seen that way pre-crisis. He believes eCommerce divisions can have unique branding attributes, especially now that foot traffic is a non-issue. He recommends doubling down on brand attributes for eCommerce, even if it is only now getting the proper amount of branding attention. Dive into new data, he says. Establish the customer behavioral patterns and predict what you think your revenue pace will be.
Klassen is adamant that the most consistent element of any brand is manifested in the customer experience. The customer experience makes or breaks loyalty, he says, and picks Starbucks and Tesla of examples of paradigm-changing companies who have an excellent customer experience.
“Those industries are succeeding because they’ve recognized that our culture is putting a big premium on time and convenience,” he wrote in a pre-crisis blog post. “If people can see how a service eases their life in terms of time and hassle, they’re much more likely to choose it, but more importantly, stay loyal to it. Even highly-regulated industries are catching on to this. The banking industry’s previously stodgy and slumbery relationship with customers is being transformed by the spread of online and mobile services. The key word is service.”