Three brand rules that did NOT change in the pandemic

By Alaa Halawi

As I rushed to a meeting with one of the largest retailers in the region, I was being briefed on the challenges they are facing in their e-commerce efforts. Along the way, we continued discussing how to expedite their e-commerce division successfully.

Although they were successfully operating in more than 1 million square feet of retail space, they knew that their brand promise was to provide a unique shopping experience to customers with unmatched value.

The word “retail” was never mentioned in their mission or their commitment. It makes sense why e-commerce became so important.

This was in 2016.

Like others, they knew where the future was heading. The difference is that they decided to do something about it.

Successful companies focus on how their customers experience their brand, regardless of sector and circumstance.

During the pandemic, a lot has been said about what has changed in doing business, of which most of it was, in hindsight, just an observation. Yet also, the pandemic uncovered what did not change. It shed more light on the fundamentals that are less dependent on a pandemic or any other crisis, and if done right, should future-proof your business against any potential future turbulence.

As we study businesses worldwide and interact daily with the majority of businesses across the region, three actions separate the companies that withered during the pandemic and those that came out stronger.

1. Define & deliver on your brand promise

You owe it to your customers to deliver on your brand promise. Tough times are the ultimate test of how you do it. Make sure as a preliminary step; you align all your stakeholders on what your brand stands for. Research your customers’ expectations, gauge your employees’ willingness to meet these expectations, and attract talent that believes in your brand promise. Your brand promise is the core value that your brand experience is built around. Patagonia is a great example of a brand that has clarity on what it stands for and how to deliver on that promise. They were one of the first companies that declared all stores would close and guaranteed full pay for all employees during this period.

2. Empathize with your customers

Having empathy towards your customers and understanding what they’re going through will give you the chance to discover how you can add value to them in bad times. A resort, sitting atop Jebel Shams in Oman, the highest point in the Arabian Gulf, decided to individually call all of their previous guests and make sure they were okay and doing well during the pandemic. The resort and its staff created a warm atmosphere for their guests when they visited the resort, so they decided to make sure they extended this warmth when their customers needed it most and were locked down at home. Their action is part of the same consumer journey the resort offers and builds on the brand experience they have worked to define since opening.

3. Get ready when you’re steady

Invest in your brand when times are good and revenues are high. Netflix didn’t wait until internet bandwidth allowed it; they noticed consumer behavioral preferences had changed, so they invested in online streaming. The decision to pivot to online streaming was so radical, and it was done when digital was close to 5% of revenue and the rest was DVD physical business back in 2007. The DVD business was growing year over year at the time. When the pandemic came along, they were well prepared and online streaming became most people’s go-to for entertainment. It also became the place to premiere new movies, drop new series, and reconnect audiences with their favorite shows.

Five years ago, in that meeting room, I may not have grasped the full sense of urgency that the retailer was facing. But now it makes complete sense. It is no surprise that they were the only retailer to grow in sales during the first nine months of the pandemic. They knew what their brand promise was and wanted to make sure they deliver on it. They had developed a heightened level of customer empathy, a higher sense of urgency to make sure they could mobilize quickly and deliver value to their customers regardless of circumstance, and invested heavily in e-commerce when it was less than 5% of their total revenue. The business is currently ahead of the curve, and further innovations will reward them with further growth.

The key lesson businesses can learn from the last year is to start investing in what their brand will be in 10 years starting today because the landscape can suddenly change, and you need to have a path forward.