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Brand leadership in troubled times

During the darkest of times, when uncertainty and confusion reign, people yearn for leadership.

Sometimes it comes from a President like Franklin Roosevelt, who famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Sometimes it comes from trusted institutions. And, sometimes, in business and popular culture, leadership comes from brands.

A brand is so much more than a clever name, a creative logo, or a memorable tag line. A brand is a promise. It’s a promise that your organization makes every day, to customers of course, but also to employees, partners, vendors, investors, regulators, media, and the many markets and communities where you operate. A brand promise encompasses more than just products and services and stretches to include an organization’s culture and purpose. Today, Anheuser-Busch is making hand sanitizer. Louis Vuitton is making masks. Ford is making ventilators. Somehow, coming from these well-established brands, it feels right.

In times of crisis, when people question everything, a well-thought out brand promise can be a ‘north star’ that keeps your organization traveling in the right direction and focused on what matters most. Successful brands act as a roadmap, guiding strategy and decision-making. Successful brands are a shared vision that rallies your customers and your team around a unified purpose, culture, and voice.

The U.S. economy is at a virtual stand-still. American consumption patterns have completely changed, and people are sheltering in place. Since normal business activity has slowed, it is a perfect time to look internally and invest in your brand. Now is the time to take a critical look at your customers, your culture, and your promise. Now is the time refresh your brand, so when this crisis passes (as it surely will) you will be a stronger, more focused, and more essential organization than ever before.

What does the process of creating a stronger brand look like? Building a stronger brand involves answering five key questions:

· Who is our customer?

· What business are we in?

· What do we stand for?

· What makes us different?

· Why should people care?

If you make the effort now to invest in your brand, you can generate a real, measurable return. Research has shown that companies with strong brands perform financially better and weather crises more successfully than companies with weak brands. There are lots of reasons why strong brands deliver strong ROI:

· Strong brands attract great employees. This is especially true for Millennials and Gen Z (currently aged 24-39 and 5-23) who will soon make up the majority of the OOH workforce. 78% of Millennials say it is important to work at a company where their values align.

· Strong brands attract new customers. More than ever, consumers and customers want to transact with brands that they deeply identify with and believe in.

· Strong brands drive loyalty. ‘Sticky’ brands like Amazon consistently surprise and delight consumers with service, selection, and innovation, while locking them in for life so they would never conceive of going anyplace else.

· Strong brands increase enterprise value. The measure of a strong brand is the premium a buyer pays for a branded version versus a generic one. Strongly-branded organizations have higher valuations than weakly-branded ones (just look at Tesla versus General Motors).

The best companies know that brands are living, organic things that require care and feeding, in good times and bad. Starbuck’s brand promise is not just about coffee, it’s about the coffeehouse experience and the feeling of warmth and community it builds into every store. Nike’s promise is not just about sneakers and apparel, it’s about enabling the ‘inner athlete’ in all of us and enhancing peoples lives through sports and fitness. These brands deliver on their promises. They will continue to weather any storm, because their brand foundations are strong.

What is your brand promise, and why should people care? Now is the time to find out.


By Lee Rafkin, Founder & CEO of Rafkin & Company.

Branding, marketing, and communications consultant based in New York. In addition to advising leading brands like Discovery Networks, Estée Lauder, Medtronic, Nestlé, and Pepsico, Rafkin has named and branded organizations like OUTFRONT, Geopath, and Boldsite Media. Learn more at rafkin.com and reach Lee at lee@rafkin.com.

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