Brand fluidity in times of Corona: What comes after the fight or flight-response?
When in immediate danger, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, an unconscious chain reaction starts, and the chemical messengers in our brain create cortisol. This leads to suppression of the immune system and a boost of energy, preparing for fight or flight. Once the threat passes, our cortisol levels go down – and the conscious parts of our brain take over again. Relief!
At this time in our lives the threat has not passed and we’re all unsure about how long we will go through distress, hardship, uncertainty.
The Corona crisis seems to trigger the same kind of almost chemical reaction in businesses or brands. After a first startle reflex and a moment of immobility and disbelief, organizations are becoming hyper-active, fueled by corporate adrenaline, focusing on cash protection first: state subsidies, longer payment periods, third-party contract termination, suspending rent payments, reduced working hours and salaries and putting a freeze to brand activities. Others also rush to empathize and to signal as loudly as possible just how much they care, without fully considering how to make this care tangible, useful or effective.
The responses during and after the immediate reaction can be largely divided into fight or flight.
Those who fight,
- sustain their operations, keep their employees safe and use all their power and resources to mitigate the effects of the crisis for us all.
- re-purpose their factories and produce face masks and gloves instead of luxury fashion, hand sanitizer instead of body cream, or find themselves under presidential pressure to produce ventilators instead of cars.
- stand on the side of their employees, customers and suppliers, put action before words, stay human, do what they can, provide relief for their own stakeholders and beyond.
- And communicate thoughtfully; joining the dots between their stakeholders and the real needs of the audiences they are striving to support.
Those who take flight,
- let worst-case scenarios rule over their headcount decisions, bonus agreements, supplier contracts, rent obligations and customer relationships.
- look for legal loopholes, seize the cost-cutting and state subsidy opportunity, even if they don`t have to and serve shareholders first
- disappear from their channels, as they believe they have nothing to do or say now
- or worse – take advantage of the crisis to re-surface as the winner or hero
We know that crisis brings out the best and the worst in both, people and brands. #BoykottBrandX will scare brand leaders now, and some may think that consumer memories are short-term, and budgets are best used when life picks up again.
Maybe – but maybe not.
There is reason to urge brands to stay in touch closely, behave consistently and prove their relevance more than any time before. To do so, they must recognize that life has become, and will remain, more fluid. Corona has supercharged the forces on business and brands that were already there and set a new paradigm for future operations.
Listening and adapting day by day is paramount. A singular message, broadcast once, will not suffice.
This phenomenon of fluidity will be the new normal for all of us, as we will have learned dramatic change the hard way, accepted uncertainty because we had to and often found some joy in our new lives.
As consumers, employees, entrepreneurs, we are building muscles and resilience. We are inventive and less needy, perhaps rediscovering a resourcefulness we’d suppressed. And we are instinctively sorting out abusive or one-sided relationships with people, employers, agencies or brands. The crisis is a catalyst to many things.
For example, to e-commerce, as it was proven with SARS in Asia. Or for better personal hygiene. We all will feel uncomfortable singing happy birthday only once, when washing hands. Or video-conferencing: Why get up at 4 am in the morning to fly from London to Berlin for a meeting, if I can meet people on Zoom? Or going back to office on a full-time basis after so many weeks of freedom. Or the retainer contract with the agency. Maybe home-schooling is the exception. Some parents among us might thank or bribe schools and teachers for taking their kids back and ensure they are happy and educated.
We see four trends, which are not necessarily new, but which will impact brands even more than before the crisis.
- Every product or service will have a digital alternative tomorrow – except for toilet-paper may be. You can be replaced by those digital siblings immediately. People don`t need you. They might discover that they need your whole category less after the crisis. Been with grey hair for 6 weeks? Maybe stick to it. Not travelled the world for the last months? Maybe enjoy home. Learnt to sew and cook? May be reduce fashion and restaurants altogether. Of course, even if they don`t need you, they might still want you but these discreet shifts in behavior represent an opportunity to improve the value exchange with your audience.
- Nothing will ever stay a secret. Really. You charge a usurious price for your product, you tolerate shabby behavior of your organization during the Corona crisis? Trust is fragile and Google`s memory is unforgiving. Platforms, apps, social media empower everybody to create movements with the like-minded. They will hype or ditch your brand and organization, as they please. Not fair? Well, this has become a game at eye level and your behavior during and post Corona is being watched.
- Everything is connected to everything. We might have heard before that Orangutans die, because we shower or eat ice-cream. That children stay un-educated, because we buy cotton t-shirts. That cars are made of 20.000 different parts from thousands of suppliers across the whole world. But now we also know that the actions of others in another part of the world can fundamentally change our society and daily experience; and that we need to keep the big picture in mind always. Brands are held responsible for issues, no matter how complex the supply-chain, no matter how water-proof their contracts and codes of conduct.
- There is a higher meaning in life but efficacy matters. Do what you do well. Be the best at it. But once the basics are covered, people not only want to know what a brand stands for but what a brand stands up for. Brand purpose has too many times proven to be a shallow promise, a mere communications exercise. All of us have been disappointed too often, a trust bonus would be naive. If the only reason to exist for a product is profit, people will behave as transactional with you as you do with them. There are many alternative brands, who do contribute their expertise and money to a higher meaning and a better world.
If our environment is ever changing- fluid – there is an imperative for brands to adapt. Not to simply respond to the forces exerted upon them but to echo or resist, as makes sense for them. They can apply fluidity too, once the fight-or-flight-response is over.
At this moment, as businesses large and small tackle the many immediate challenges that each day presents, the notion of ’what is next’ may feel too removed or too difficult to consider. But beyond just keeping things moving, there is an imperative to consider how we not only get back to normal but strive to get back to better. This is a good time to re-vive and re-vise a brand; to assess the rational and emotional value we contribute and develop brand ideas fit for future based on fluidity. The current situation is good for some ‘zero-base’ exercise: What is the true anchor of our brand, which has brought us to where we are today? What are the actions which will make the life of our stakeholders better? And how will we build and nourish our key connections with customers, suppliers, talent and the society at large, so that we together can add value. Perhaps whether a brand chooses to proactively plan for a different future or not is the true test of flight or flight.
This essay is part of a series of opinion pieces shared by FLUID, our global collective of independent senior consultants from around the world, who come together on a project basis to solve communications-intensive business issues. We identified the concept of ‘fluidity’ as a primary characteristic of the world in which we live and operate. It is characterized by the undermining, deterioration – and even ultimate collapse – of traditional norms, structures and processes. And it challenges organizations, brands and people to apply fluidity to their thinking and their actions. “In a fluid world, it is sometimes difficult to see the dots – let alone to connect them. Fluid helps you do both.”