Who'd be a brand?

Brands and businesses need to recalibrate their meaningful role in people’s lives, from the inside out.

Who’d be a brand right now? Your world’s been turned upside down over the past few weeks, your strategy has had to change, and now, more than ever, every move you make and message you put out is firmly under the microscope.

It’s taken a global pandemic to remind brands that to drive affinity, they need to provide value; with transparency, empathy and most of all, humanity. It’s not an easy shift to make. It takes guts, determination and courage – but it’s the right thing to do. And it starts on the inside.

Where do you start, and what do you stop?

The best thing brands and business can do to help in this crisis is to look after their employees. That’s what 79% of UK respondents said in McCann Truth Central’s Truth about culture and COVID-19 study, which surveyed over 15,000 people globally across 11 markets. Brits care that businesses care about their people right now, way above offering promotions (37%) and helping cheer people up (34%), so it’s not surprising they also believe CEOs should make sacrifices for their employees (54% vs 31% globally).

This thinking is backed up by Kantar in its ongoing COVID-19 Barometer, a study of how the virus is influencing the attitudes, expectations and behaviours of consumers towards organisations. Having spoken to over 30,000 people across 50 markets, they’ve got a pretty good handle on how people think brands should be acting. While only 8% of people think brands should stop advertising altogether, 77% said they would like to hear how brands are helping and what they’re doing to navigate and mitigate the current climate. And 71% were very clear that brands exploiting COVID-19 to make a fast buck won’t be looked upon fondly.

Most interestingly, the top two concerns consumers have for brands are that they ‘provide a safe environment for staff’ and ‘enable them to work flexibly’. Perhaps fearful of our own job security from reading, seeing and hearing stories of friends, family and people in our social networks losing businesses, being put on furlough or facing redundancy, we’re taking a deeper interest in how companies are treating their people, because it could easily happen to us. It’s human nature.

Your employer brand is your brand

People will remember which brands treated their employees with humanity during this crisis, and tellingly, which didn’t. Leaders will be judged on how they handled their organisation’s people experience during this period, and we’re expecting a key question job hunters will be asking potential employers to be, “how did you engage your teams through the Coronavirus pandemic?”. Employer brand strategy is the brand strategy for all organisations.

There’s even a website dedicated to name the brands that helped their employees through COVID-19, and shame those that haven’t. https://didtheyhelp.com

But this shouldn’t be seen as a quick fix PR move in an attempt to buy some goodwill. If you’re a brand, don’t do this because you’re in crisis mode feeling that you’re reacting because you ‘have to’. Do it because you want to, do it because it's the right thing to do.

The ultimate acid test

This situation feels like the ultimate acid test for employer brands. The mirror's being held up to the promises you’ve made as an employer and the social contract you have with your employees. Those with thinly-veiled EVPs will quickly see cracks appear, in a very public way. Ask yourself, are we treating, engaging and communicating with our employees in the way we set out? Are we defaulting to our purpose, our vision and our values?

The current situation really does provide an incredible way of testing the rigour of your employer brand. Do the promises you’ve made ring true and do your claims stack up? Do your values have meaning and substance? Are you acting on them, or are they resigned to being nothing more than words on your website, notes on a job ad or icons on your company handbook?

If it’s not fit for purpose right now, whether there’s tweaks to be made or a full-blown overhaul, now’s the time to do it. There’s no better time to really understand your people, your customers and your business, as your whole organisation transforms again to pivot around the ‘new normal’, whatever that looks like. That takes real creative courage.

Sticky organisations and brands

Organisations that come through this with stronger brands (both in a corporate and employer sense), are the ones that act quickly. They do this because being people-focused is already in their DNA, and they align their people, customer and marketing teams to deliver a seamless experience for their employees and those who buy their product. They break down internal silos to mobilise teams and budgets, redeploying them to the places that need it most, and rallying their employees. Focus on compassion, togetherness, communication, understanding, involvement and flexibility – all the things HR, and internal comms leaders will have been lobbying leadership to prioritise are now at the forefront.

It’s time to be courageous

The mirror is up - your brand is stripped bare. It’s time to tell your people, then the world, that the brand promises you make are real. Be brave, be bold, be creative. You can do this. Go.

Chris Giddings is Head of Marketing at McCann Synergy, employee engagement specialists.

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