What does is it take for brands to survive and thrive amid the anxiety of this moment and beyond? Daniel Binns, chief executive of Interbrand New York, tells us what he sees outlasting the face masks, graffiti and social distancing.
The scale of social, economic and cultural turmoil in 2020 appeared exceptional. But was it? Recovering from a widespread plague, in only a few decades between the late 15th and early 16th century, Europe went through a tumultuous transition, marked (in the words of Oxford professor Ian Goldin) “by historic milestones and discoveries, yes, but also wrenching upheaval…Genius flourished under these conditions…but risk flourished, too.”
As they say, history may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. If we step back from the immediacy of the ongoing current crisis and place it in a broader context, we may find that we are, as Goldin suggests, navigating the storms of a new renaissance, where once again human creativity, resilience and achievements can create opportunity.
There is, however, a major difference. What previously took decades is now happening in years – or even months. In a short period, outrage has sparked movements that are driving radical change around existential issues such as diversity, equity, inclusion and climate change. Regimes are being challenged. People’s expectations have never been more unstable and unforeseeable.
Brands in an anxious world
As we are all torn between the fear of being trampled by the next wave of turmoil and the hope of hopping on its back and seizing new opportunities, one prevailing sentiment will unite us all well beyond the current crisis: anxiety. A constant tension between fear and hope. In the most recent study of the 100 most valuable global brands (Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2020), one question emerged as the keystone of our analysis: what is a brand’s role in this anxious world?
With an aggregate value of more than $2tn, there can be no doubt that the biggest and best brands in the world are now a force of macroeconomic magnitude and – most importantly – influence. Their policies and actions have an impact not only on individual choices and nations’ prosperity, but on our interconnected global society, and indeed our planet.
So, as uncertainty fuels fear, how can brands build economic resilience and individual confidence? Our analysis revealed a chain of three fundamental priorities.
1. Leadership: It takes courageous leaders to create hope. We must be driven by perspective, not immediacy. We need the world’s most influential brands to lead from the front, setting a worthy purpose and a powerful ambition beyond turbulence and chaos.
This is embodied by Tesla. The brand has not only driven demand and advocacy from its inception, it has also attracted and retained a loyal following of retail investors. More than that, it has forced change in one of the most inert and largest scale industries, all thanks to its leadership, purpose and ambition. Tesla is highly likely to face increasing competition going forward, but it stands as an exceptional case of leading from the future with absolute clarity of direction.
2. Engagement: Leadership requires engagement. At times of crisis, brave leaders don’t just commit to a worthy purpose, they inspire others to join them on a shared journey. Brands that thrive in an anxious world foster dialogue, invite co-operation and create a following. Great brands make consumers want to be part of their story – through historic moves that capture the imagination and solve unmet needs, as well as small acts that show vulnerability, gratitude and empathy.
Salesforce is a great example when it comes to engagement. The brand has seen explosive growth by listening to – and celebrating – its customer communities rather than its products. It’s a business that brings customers on that shared journey, through its constant conversations with them.
3. Relevance: Ultimately, it takes brave leadership and powerful engagement to achieve relevance. Encapsulating and anticipating the zeitgeist, great brands lift us from indifference and make our choices meaningful. They count us as constituents, not just consumers. They become anchor points in volatile times, sparking desire, delivering utility and building trust.
It can be hard for consumers to be heard over the cornucopia of noise – but brands with relevance can make customer choices more meaningful. Take PayPal – it’s one of the most trusted payment brands in the world thanks to the work it has done to keep its customers’ money safe and mitigate concerns around fraud. Customers using PayPal make their voices heard – they want financial services companies to provide security. In an anxious world – at a time of heightened unease and economic uncertainty – nothing matters more than this.
Surviving the storms
Leadership, engagement and relevance reverberate within conversations with business leaders across all geographies, sizes and industries – as well as in our ongoing dialogue with their customers. They are the keys to unlocking results in the current crisis, building customer confidence and business resilience.
Covid-19’s most enduring legacy will not be face masks, graffiti and social distancing, but the end of continuity as the default assumption. And as murals in cities around the world suggest, perhaps there will be no going back to normal, because normal was the issue.
We are only beginning to grasp the implications of this inflection point, and no organization will be untouched. For many businesses, what looms ahead is a quest for survival and recovery. For others, this is the time to imagine radically new contracts with their constituents. By setting out powerful ambitions and pursuing them with courage and conscience, brands can help us lift our heads, make sense of chaos, and see beyond it – championing a new age of possibility.
Daniel Binns is the chief executive officer of Interbrand New York.