Navigating Brand Messaging in Uncertain Times

We've put together a few lessons from a tumultuous 2020 to help guide your organization's brand and comms strategy for what comes next.

It’s been one helluva year. With a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, a nailbiter of a U.S. election, widespread demonstrations, raging forest fires, and a growing climate crisis, 2020 has exposed an undeniable new societal reality: change is afoot.

With the year nearing an end (and honestly, not soon enough!), many brands wonder what a looming and uncertain 2021 will mean for their brand and comms strategies.

We’ve put together a few lessons from a tumultuous 2020 to help guide your organization’s brand and comms strategy for what comes next – no matter what happens. Except for maybe aliens. If it’s aliens we’re all screwed.

Your organizational purpose matters more now than ever

All around us, traditional power structures are shifting, and in some cases, eroding altogether. In their place, many customers are looking to brands to fill the void by taking a stance.

In fact, a Special Report by Morning Consult found that half of U.S. consumers (54%) believe companies should drive change on important social issues — a sentiment up 74.2% from just one year ago.

Another study analyzing the business value of brands having an understandable “purpose” surveyed 8,000 global consumers across eight markets and found customers are six times more likely to buy from, trust, champion, and defend companies with a strong purpose.

As uncertainty grows globally, savvy businesses are zeroing in on their “Why” and aligning their organizational purpose with the underlying cultural currents that define customers’ beliefs, actions, opinions, and behaviours. 

Take a stance

It’s important, however, brands don’t simply appropriate whatever cause is making headlines, all willy nilly. Smart brands rally behind issues that connect to their organizational purpose.

“Authenticity matters for brands in tumultuous times. Show up as who you are and what you stand for,” says Kat Gates, a creative director at Google.

Paul Argenti, an expert in corporate communications at Tuck School of Business, developed this handy framework to help brands decide how and when to speak up. At its core are three important questions:

  • Does the issue align with your company’s strategy?
  • Can you meaningfully influence the issue?
  • Will your constituencies agree with speaking out?

Act with urgency

Remember when the lockdown first began, and we were told this whole COVID thing would just blow over?

For businesses struggling to stay afloat, the months since then might as well have been eight years. 

In the sea of companies waiting for things to go back to ‘business as usual,’ there are a few that decided to turn up the heat. These businesses leaned into uncertainty, turning urgency into a competitive advantage with increased speed, efficiency, and effectiveness.

While there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future, it’s unlikely things will ever go back to how they were.

This is a time that rewards boldness.

Keep it simple

Look: Lord knows we’ve all got enough going on these days without having to decipher your convoluted brand messaging. If you need proof, look to McKinney Research’s report on (ahem, the “s— show that is”) Q4 that describes U.S. consumers as conflicted and overwhelmed.

Be kind to your audiences. Keep things clear, concise, short, and sweet. Brevity is your friend.

Connect the dots

We all know the importance of focusing communications around a product’s benefits, not the product itself. That rule is even more true in times of uncertainty. A stressed and overwhelmed customer doesn’t care about your company’s storied history or jargon-ridden mission statement. They want you to help them solve problems and improve their situations. The hero of their story isn’t you—it’s them. You’re just a supporting player. 

Successful brands use their customers’ challenges as a hook to paint a vivid picture of the problems they solve, driving a broader story that leads to your solution.

A #1 Wall Street Journal best-seller, Building a StoryBrand does a great job explaining this principle in step 2 of its 7-Part (SB7) Framework. 

In conclusion

While we’re all hoping 2021 brings with it a fresh slate, the sobering truth is that we’re in this for a while longer – as brands and customers, but most importantly as people. The pandemic won’t disappear overnight, and neither will inequality, racism, or cultural division. 

These realities aren’t going away. But if this dumpster fire of a year has taught us anything, it’s that the world moves quickly and rewards organizations that can keep pace. We just have to move forward with clarity and generosity, staying true to the values that guide us.

If you’re looking to future-proof your organization’s brand identity by zeroing in on its organizational purpose, we’d love to help.