The Value of Brand Communications During Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Corporate bankruptcy does not mean a brand will become extinct or that it’s time to halt all marketing and communications. Instead, a Chapter 11 filing is an opportunity for a business to restructure debt and remain in operation. A strategic approach to brand communications leading up to, during, and following a Chapter 11 filing is key to successful emergence.

The United States saw a 26% increase in Chapter 11 business bankruptcy filings, in the first half of 2020, according to legal-services firm Epiq. Many retailers, travel companies, and oil and gas companies were among the over 3,600 companies filing for bankruptcy protection, including Brooks Brothers, Ascena Retail Group (Ann Taylor and Lane Bryant), Hertz, 24 Hour Fitness, and Frontier Communications. In the coming months, there will likely be many more companies that are significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and changing consumer behavior, filing for bankruptcy protection.

However, Chapter 11 is not all doom and gloom. The objective is often to reorganize the business, not liquidate it entirely. A company going through Chapter 11 typically downsizes its operations. For example, many retailers who’ve announced Chapter 11 filing are closing down select stores and selling off certain brands.

There are many misconceptions about bankruptcy. Therefore, there’s a critical need to reassure a variety of audiences throughout the process. Brand communications play a vital role in sharing important information about the future of a business as it enters, manages through, and emerges from bankruptcy. 

Here are several central pillars to effective brand communications in support of Chapter 11 filings.

Create a communications task force. 

Internal alignment requires close coordination across leadership, legal, sales, marketing, and client-facing teams. Consider engaging outside communications counsel in the form of a specialized PR agency or consultant with relevant experience.

Craft the narrative. 

The brand should own the present and future narrative. Don’t let others tell your story. Communicate new information along the restructuring journey to guide the media, partners, and customers regarding your transformation. 

Find your allies.

Share and back up your story through parties who can support your communications, including analysts, influencers, partners, and ‘friendly’ reporters. Focus on the markets where you have a strong presence because of the vested interest in your future success.

Lean on leadership.

The CEO’s role is to set clear expectations and reassure customers, employees, and the general public. The top executive should focus on transparent and open communications that outline the organization’s future. Leadership can draw on brands who’ve successfully restructured and refocused their business.

Be consistent.

There are typically many audiences who will be following Chapter 11 developments and information. Orchestrate consistent communications that mirror your filing but tailor these themes by the audience.

The Chapter 11 process is not a time to neglect your brand communications and marketing. Rather, it’s an opportunity to provide information reflective of the company’s new direction. 

Brand Experience and a Tale of Two Startups

As if there isn’t already enough happening in the world right now, I’ve been taking on one of the most stressful endeavors at regular times, amplified during COVID: a move! Not just any move — a cross-country move. The thought of being by myself all summer long in this strange pandemic version of New York was making me feel a little unhinged, so I departed for sunny California.

Selling my NYC condo is about as much real estate woe as I can handle, so I turned to specialty startups to help soften my landing in CA. It was like living through one of my very own presentations about brand experience do’s and don’ts.

It all boils down to what I tell my clients all the time:

Customer Service Is the Original Creative Branding Solution — Don’t Overlook It.

Brands are increasingly relying on tech like slick websites and flash apps to appeal to customers. Those things are great, but they only go so far. Great tech is worth nothing if the brand is not thinking about the end-to-end customer experience and all the different touch points that can affect a customer’s perception. Big-picture customer service just isn’t being talked about anymore.

Case in point — the startup I worked with to set up my new place. They specialize in doing all the boring, time-consuming condo tasks, and marketed themselves as having beautifully furnished corporate apartments so that I could “simply show up and start living.” The opportunity to test out an interesting building before I choose exactly where to settle sounded perfect. But what would happen after the marketing has done its job and it’s time to follow through? Nothing good, it turns out.

Just to get the contract signed I was passed around from person to person. It didn’t bode well for the rest of my experience. I’ll spare you the full horror story that awaited me when it was time to check in to my new place. Let’s just say there wasn’t even a bed ready to sleep in. I had to use all my negotiating experience to back out of the agreement, and didn’t receive so much as an apology.

I seek out a great customer experience wherever I go, and this particular experience was a powerful reminder that too many brands are putting the cart before the horse when it comes to marketing and customer service.

Reach out to me if you want to know the company I am talking about so you can avoid the same headache.

Problems Are Universal. Problem Solving Is What Sets You Apart.

Enter the next startup, Feather. I moved to a different unit in the same building, and picked a different startup to work with on furnishing. You get to rent anything you want from their inventory of stylish furniture, which they deliver and set up — it’s more of subscription service versus the good old-fashioned Rent-a-Center model. Everything happened on a sleek app. When I signed up, there was a credit card issue. I got an immediate phone call from a real person who solved the problem. I received follow-up calls to check in and offer help all throughout the process. When a delivery went wrong, they made me feel like fixing it immediately was a priority to them. They even honored a promotion I received after signing up.

As a global brand strategist and a picky consumer of luxury brands, I’ve seen it all, and I promise that old-fashioned customer service isn’t going to stop being important any time soon. Fabulous brand events and other cool experiences you create are quickly forgotten when someone has a bad check in experience at a hotel, or the internet doesn’t work in your Airbnb rental, or a luxury car dealer makes a busy executive come into the dealership to sign paperwork. Never, ever underestimate the basic and fundamental human experience along every touch point of the customer journey.

5 Actions in the “Age of Re-”

Now is the time to re-imagine parts of your brand. The Age of Re is upon us, where we connect to the core values and ideas that make our connections authentic and purposeful.

The Latin root of the prefix “Re” means “again.”

Even though this year seems more uncertain and brand-new than we can professionally remember, I’m thinking it might actually be the time for “again.”

Brands in 2020 seem to be going back to their core customers with the strongest loyalty. To lean into that loyalty means messages and brand positions have to be more basic and true to what your core group of customers believe about you.

I’ve thought of this as the Age of Re. It’s the Age of Again for brands who want to remember who they are, what their real purpose is, and regain their footing in an uncertain landscape.

So, here are 5 Re’s your brand can embrace in this strange landscape. All of us are reimagining our health, economic, and social cause futures. I’m sure there are more that I’ve missed, and I challenge you to talk with your team about these, and other, Re’s.

  1. Revisit – How many ideas have you filed away? They might have been too goofy, too strange, or lower priority than other ideas that drove shorter-term revenue. For some brands, being on the brink may also mean removing fear.
  2. Remind – Stating your position in the market, your values, and what makes you different than competitors is vital. Customers are – like all of us – scattered in their thinking. We have been at home balancing school, work, and new social norms…all while being bombarded with a relentless news cycle that won’t quit. It’s easy for customers to forget what you stand for.
  3. Reinvent – It might be time to add new products, expand into other markets, or transform a core competency into something different. If you are in retail or clothes-making, adjusting to producing masks makes a lot of sense. In fact, a recent bag company made some modifications to create masks as a new product line.

Slight Detour: Check out the pivots from these companies now offering masks:

  • bluecanoe.com – selling out the first wave of organic, cotton-stretch, amazingly comfortable masks
  • bagmasters.com – pivoted their bag-making business into making masks
  • customink.com – which does custom t-shirts, and is now making customized masks

In addition, businesses used to a physical presence are thinking of how they move forward with remote workers. Companies like Zapier and NinjaCat are all remote. Businesses like Modern Postcard – which has a physical printing and mailing facility – are now hybrid models with some workers on-site, and others remotely working. This change created an opportunity to reinvent your business model and working organization.

  1. Retouch – Beyond what to say, it’s also a time to communicate differently to your customers and leads. With email, mailings, educational webinars, and PDFs, the reason to send messages back to all of your customers is clear. You can remind them of your mission and values by retouching all of them. Setting but limiting your marketing communication schedule for the next 6 months makes sense – it’s going to be an uncertain back-half of the year, especially heading into the tumultuous November Election cycle.
  2. Recover – Focusing the business on clawing back to a steady revenue place is key. The Playbook for 2020 was thrown out the window in March, and now the expectations and goals are completely different. I’ve heard from several brands that breaking down the goal in stages can help. It might seem too daunting to recover all of the business, so focusing on one or two aspects where getting back to baseline is do-able

Bonus Re: Rejuvenate. There are many brands who are engaging the current conversation of racial injustice and some kind of police reform. Shout-out to Everlane, who has a link to resources related to Black Lives Matter that help educate, create awareness, and deepen understanding. Every marketer should know that 76% of Generation Z – who will be the largest consumer group in 2026 – purchases or considers purchasing from a brand to show support for the social issues the brand cares about. Everlane has done this, injecting a more youthful, lively and aware message on their website.

It’s a time to go back again to ideas, values, and customers that made your brand unique in the first place.

As marketers, we all professionally ascribe to the concept that more information and understanding yields better decisions. Why wouldn’t that happen in other areas of our life and community?

As always, I welcome your comments.

Needed Again? The Ad Campaign That Saved New York

It’s midsummer, yet we are at a moment in time when tourism and travel ad campaigns are practically at a standstill, due to COVID-19 and our economic shutdown. Here in New York, the lights of Broadway will be out for not just the rest of summer, but the entire year (subscription required). Who knows if New Year 2021 will bring the bright lights back – and if so, the audiences, with billions in the balance.

The city also was recently met with the passing of Milton Glaser, the founder and publisher of New York magazine, and the graphics genius behind the now-ubiquitous “I❤NY” graphic.

A wise soul never bets against New York.

Another advertising genius, Mary Wells Lawrence — the first woman to found, own, and manage a major advertising agency (Wells Rich Greene, in 1966) – was honored last week with a Cannes Lions “Lion of St. Mark” for lifetime achievement. Her agency – with Glaser’s design – literally took a “deteriorating” New York and launched a Broadway-focused campaign that began the city’s (and state’s) path toward the world giant of tourism that it is today.

Here are some samples of work from this campaign in the early 1980s – note the direct-response call to action. Also of note, Glaser developed the graphics pro bono, and the jingle also was donated by composer Steve Karmen.

A Campaign That Sparked Imagination, Captured a Moment, and Practically Created a Category

New York will need nothing short of another seminal ad campaign – or campaign extension — to revise its fortunes once again.

This work was indeed seminal. Until that time (campaign launch, 1976-77), there were few state-funded tourism campaigns that captured America’s imagination as much as “I❤NY” – only “Virginia is for Lovers” (1969) comes to mind. “I❤NYmay not have invented the category, but it took travel and tourism marketing to new heights in public consciousness.

Famously left for bankruptcy by President Gerald Ford, New York City’s perceived state in the mid-1970s was nothing short of disastrous. Depopulation, crime (Son of Sam), blackouts (and looting), decrepit public transit… one might argue the city barely functioned, if at all.

But New York always fights back. The truth is the city never lost its global mantle atop finance, fashion, night life, the arts, and retail, among other sectors. Broadway is uniquely New York and – other than London’s West End – there was no greater concentration of live theater in all its forms than the Big Apple, so of course Broadway was going to be the initial focus of an ad campaign, which happened to open the door to New York’s comeback.

And oh, did it work, perhaps far beyond tourism and economic revival. It created an energy and mystique for the city that touched a chord with many – not just to visit New York, but to come to the city and live, take a chance, and forge our path in the pursuit of happiness. (When our pop heroes of the time – Blondie, the Rolling Stones, Kiss (Ace Frehley), Michael Jackson – are singing in and about you, adding a dose of parody, it’s also hard not to notice.) What followed in New York City is truly remarkable – a booming economy that even periodic stock market corrections and September 11 could not dislodge. These latter events, merely interruptions.

That is, until now.

A New Marketing Challenge – Who Wants to Step Up?

Even prior to COVID-19, New York has had new images and realities to contend with: a population that peaked in 2016, even amid a wildly successful tech and biomedical boom; Gen Z and Millennials with vitality and genius who can’t afford the price of entry – or, worse, feel it’s not worth it; strangulation by repugnant and short-sighted immigration curtailment and visa restrictions that serve to fail the American Dream. And now, it was the epicenter of a pandemic, which has brought into question the safety of dense population centers everywhere.

So how will NYC & Company, the State of New York Division of Tourism, and Empire State Development perhaps unite to revive New York’s fortunes this go-around?

It’s time for a Next Generation to dream big, strategize, and present the next seminal campaign (extension) that will “save” New York. I ask, who’s going to do it? Where are the next Mary Wells Lawrence and Milton Glaser?

How about you? If you and your agency are creating successful work right now, you can prove it: The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) has now issued its 2021 International ECHO Awards call for entries. What makes the ANA ECHOs so unique is that each campaign is judged by peers based on data-informed strategy, creativity, and results in business outcomes that any c-suite would love. “Brilliant results. Executed brilliantly.”

Like the State and City of New York, thousands of brands right now need agency and marketing leadership that inspire, motivate, and move business and the economy. In both consumer and business markets, domestic and global, earning an ECHO shows data prowess in real campaigns that make a difference on the bottom line – attributes and outcomes that are in high demand. Take your best work from 2020 and enter, and I’m proud to say, I’ll have the opportunity to help judge that work this fall.

I’m eager to see the best. New York’s image curators ought to be watching as well.

What’s in a Name? A Lot. Here’s How to Successfully Rebrand Your Business

Rebrands of companies, products, and services are not uncommon. A company may choose to rebrand to refresh a stale image. Often a rebrand is triggered by a merger or acquisition. A scandal is also a catalyst for a rebrand. For example, increased focus and sensitivity surrounding brands with controversial roots like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s have led to recent rebrand announcements.

Successful rebranding, regardless of the impetus, starts with a thoughtful assessment of why, what, how, when, and where.

  • Why rebrand now?
  • What aspects of the brand need a refresh?
  • How will the rebrand work be done?
  • When will the new brand launch?
  • Where will you represent your new brand?

Why Rebrand Now?

A new marketing leader or executive looking to institute change may request a rebrand. But is that the right reason? Your brand wasn’t built in a day. Before rebranding, it’s worth taking stock of your brand, its history, market perception, and current value.

Weigh the pros and cons of moving forward with a rebranding effort along with the anticipated cost. Get input from a cross-section of the company along with end customers.

What Aspects of the Brand Need a Refresh?

Most people outside of the marketing community would associate a rebrand with a name change, but there’s much more to it. Determine if you’re reimagining the brand’s visual representation, language, story, or a combination of these elements. Create a complete list of all the brand aspects you wish to revamp.

How Will the Rebrand Work Be Done?

Companies of all sizes have been through the rebranding process. While many, such as Google/Alphabet, have significant in-house marketing staff, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a rebrand should be executed entirely by an internal team.

Outside perspective and expertise can provide an unbiased point of view and more in-depth experience related to rebranding. This sounding board and external counsel can also help to sell through ideas to leadership and management without jeopardizing relationships.

When Will the New Brand Launch?

Unless you’re a household name, most of the general public will have little interest in your new brand. However, employees and loyal customers may be more invested. Be sensitive to the audiences that will care most and consider timing the rebrand to something meaningful like a corporate anniversary, large company or industry event, or another milestone.

Where Will You Represent Your New Brand?

Orchestrating the new brand launch requires a coordinated effort across your brand channels. If you send a customer email introducing a new brand, but your website still aligns with your retired brand, the rebrand is incomplete and ineffective.

Take stock of your current marketing resources – both digital and offline – as well as your internal materials and training efforts. Ensure that all of your employees, especially those within sales, marketing, client services, and leadership, understand how to express the new brand. An end-to-end rebrand can’t happen overnight. It will require support from many departments, from HR for training and onboarding to technology for digital representation.

Be Thorough and Patient.

A rebrand is typically a massive undertaking. Make sure you have a plan and secure buy-in from the critical stakeholders. Take your time to do it properly and ask the right questions from the start.

How the Impact of COVID-19 Is Changing Marketing

Well, it’s not as if we can start 2020 all over again — we’re already halfway through this year thus far. Yet, we can say one thing, COVID-19 and its recessionary impacts may be hanging around awhile. How may this have changed marketing mid-year, and possibly changed it permanently?

Well, it’s not as if we can start 2020 all over again — we’re already halfway through this year thus far. Yet, we can say one thing: COVID-19 and its recessionary impacts may be hanging around awhile. How may this have changed marketing mid-year, and possibly changed it permanently?

Such prognostications have kept The Winterberry Group, a marketing research consultancy, plenty busy since March: reading the tea leaves of government data, industry interviews, marketing dashboards, econometric algorithms, and the like. Principal Bruce Biegel told a Direct Marketing Club of New York audience this past week that indeed June has been better than May, which was better than April — when the U.S. (and much of the global) economy was in free fall.

So what’s underway and what’s in store for us midyear? Have we turned a corner?

Our Comeback Will Not Be a U-Turn — ‘Swoosh!’

When unemployment shoots up to 17.1%, and 40 million American jobs either furlough or disappear, there’s going to be a lag effect. The “wallet” recession is upon us, as consumers hang onto their savings, or eat through them, so there’s not going to be the same level of demand that drives upward of two-thirds of the U.S. economy.

New York City is a COVID-19 epicenter — and the commercial real estate market may take five to 10 years to recover, reports The Economist (subscription required). Knowledge workers will return, eventually. But densely populated urban centers, where innovations accelerate the economy, may look and feel different for some time, and that in and of itself could hamper national and global growth. Can other innovation clusters stave off the virus to protect collaboration?

And then there’s our world of advertising. Biegel sees digital being a “winner,” as traditional media continues to take a drubbing. Linear TV spending dropped by a quarter this quarter, and direct mail by half. Experiential and sponsorship spending has been slashed by 75%, as concerts, live sports, conferences, and festivals all took a public health-ordered hiatus. Yet, even in digital categories, Q2 has yelled “ouch.”

Email is the only channel to have held its own, though pricing pressure has cut margins. Social, search, and digital display all have posted drops from 25% to 40% during the quarter — and though all our eyes were home watching Disney+, Netflix, and the like, even OTT/addressable TV ad spending was down by 5%. With the Newfronts coming this week, it will be interesting to see what types of digital media may post gains.

So if June’s “recovery” in media spend is any indication, Q3 (sans Olympics) and Q4 (yes, we’re still having an Election, last time I checked) should be solid though not buoyant. Biegel says it may be a “swoosh” recovery — think Nike’s logo — down fast, but up again slowly, steadily and resiliently. Which begs the questions: Can ad businesses, business models, and brands cope with a new reality?

The “new normal” is about coming out of the COVID-19 crisis — and half of executives surveyed by The Winterberry Group aren’t expecting miracles:

Medium-Term Budget Cuts

IAB-Winterberry Group State of Data (2020)

 Q3 Will Start a Recovery … of Sorts

Source: Advertiser Perceptions, Pivotal Research Group (2020), as reported by Winterberry Group

And, Biegel reported, that it may indeed take to 2024 — with COVID-19 firmly in a rear view mirror — for a recovery to be complete, according to IPG Mediabrands Magna. It is predicting a 4.4% ad spend contraction this year, a 4% recovery next year, and “subdued” results thereafter until mid-decade.

So How Have We Changed — and Will These New Behaviors Stick?

Some effects, though, may indeed have permanence in how Americans consume media — perhaps hastening trends already underway, or creating a whole rethink of how we act as consumers. Consider these impacts:

  • Streaming to TVs more than doubled during COVID-19 crisis. Have we rewired our video consumption habits away from scheduled programming for good?
  • Mobile data traffic surged 380% in March alone. Consumers have taken to their smartphones everywhere — so how has mobile viewing altered consumer’s screen habits across devices, and will it stick?
  • DTC brands and catalogs know all about remote selling — and so do millions of consumers who have now come to love shopping this way.
  • Video game use is up 60% — opening the door to more in-game advertising opportunities. This may change the mix of brands seeking to engage consumers there.
  • In January there were 280,000 posted job openings in data analytics. There are 21,000 today. More than half of marketers expect predictive modeling and segmentation to occupy their marketing strategy concerns for the balance of 2020.
  • Tangible value matters. Consumers will be demanding more pricing benefits from brand loyalty, and less VIP experiences. We may be getting tired of lockdowns but we are steadfast in a recession, savings conscious mindset.
  • Business travel – yes, your clients may be returning to the office, but do they really want to see YOU? What can B2B marketers and sellers achieve virtually?

It’s ironic, Biegel said, that privacy laws and the crumbling cookie are making customer recognition harder in the addressable media ecosystem, just as consumers expect and demand to be recognized. Identity resolution platforms will evolve to cope with these new marketplace realities — both of which are independent of COVID-19 – but the solutions will bring forth a blend of technologies, processes, and people yet to be fully formulated. These are still open and important marketplace issues.

So assuming we’re healthful health-wise, we have some challenges ahead in ad land. I’m glad to have some guideposts in this unprecedented time.

Make Your Brand Social Statements Actually Drive Change and Results

As marketers, we must look at corporate social responsibility programs as more than blanket statements about an ideal world and big cash donations to associations related to a given cause, and instead outline the actions we will take across all areas of our brands to effect change.

When I wrote my first book, I had the privilege of interviewing Earl Graves, the founder of Black Enterprise magazine and a highly successful entrepreneur that inspired many people beyond business. I was excited to ask him about the steps he took to reach his goals, and the guiding principles that had helped him sustain growth for several decades. What he told me was surprisingly simple, and even more profound. His words:

“People need to know what you say and what you do are going to be the same.”

That was it. This coming from a man that was with Robert F. Kennedy on the fateful day he was shot, a former board member of American Airlines and the Boy Scouts of America, and founder, editor and publisher of one of the most successful publications serving entrepreneurs nationwide.

Those words go through my mind more frequently and rapidly than ever as I watch the civic and business reactions to the modern-day lynching of George Floyd. I read wonderfully profound statements — carefully crafted by marketing and PR executives, speech writers, and humanitarians across all industries — that express their values and commitments to never engage in any kind of discrimination: racial, gender, age, religious, and so on. And I wonder. I wonder how realistic it is that these companies will ever truly change, or bluntly, really do anything about social injustices in their local communities or beyond.

Many of you are likely behind a brand’s statement of commitment to never practice racism. However, words at times like these are cheap. Eloquence is often offensive as it projects ideals that have not been adhered to when they should have, and likely won’t be sustained for long, if ever, if entire cultures don’t change. Many of us agree that there are many wrongs with this crisis and others impacting society, but really don’t understand how we are part of the wrong, even though we claim, “we don’t talk like that” or “we don’t think like that.” The wrong that many of us commit is trying to resolve issues with just words and thoughts, not actions.

The only way for business leaders to effect the change they write about in their statements is to back them up with a solid action plan. As you ponder putting out statements about your brand’s commitments and values, ask yourself, your executive team, and staff members:

  • What is the goal behind our actions?
  • What actions are necessary to reach our goal?
  • How will you involve every employee and every aspect of our business?
  • How will you measure and repeat our success?

Doing what is politically correct at the moment based upon how the wind is blowing is not adequate, or acceptable. Customers demand more of brands. They support companies that have longstanding commitments to social responsibility, and not just when under pressure or a microscope. In fact, consumer behavior research from Cone Communications shows that more than 80% of consumers will switch to brands that practice social values.

Hosting an annual diversity fair at work and encouraging people of various groups to listen to one another for a day is not going to cut it, either. Real change requires real actions that are built upon reflection and introspection as to how individuals and company cultures or practices could be contributing to a problem.

Another friend whom I interviewed for my second book, Toby Usnik, who just authored his own book, “The Caring Economy,” has been advising brands of all sizes to build a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan that is actionable and measurable. He advises businesses to look at their CSR programs as not single acts or commitments to do A or B, or a point of arrival, but rather a spectrum of caring. This spectrum of caring embraces the totality of a brand’s character, behavior, actions, expenditures and values. Usnik says:

“Once a brand declares its place on the spectrum through it public reporting, it should then strive to move further up the spectrum to an even more responsible and caring place. One that is recognized by all its stakeholders.”

Usnik reflects on what he calls “darker angels and “better angels.” Darker angels continue to maintain the status quo even when they know what they are doing is wrong and dangerous. Better angels are those who spend the time to identify what they are doing that could be wrong, dangerous, harmful to others, socially unjust in anyway, subtle or more overt.

He cites a social app brand that decided to confront racism by removing race and ethnicity filters. This alone is a serious step forward. Imagine if employee applications did not ask race, gender, or ethnicity questions? What would that mean for processes based on equality and qualifications? Yes, these are optional to complete, but many of us choose to do so to give ourselves every chance possible of making the short list. But again, why do these issues get asked if they really don’t matter and have a possibility of driving biases or discrimination.

Bottom line, as marketers, we must look at corporate social responsibility programs as more than blanket statements about an ideal world and big cash donations to associations related to a given cause, and instead outline the actions we will take across all areas of our brands to effect change.

According to Usnik, who outlines action plans for businesses in his book, we must look at our social programs, commitments, and behaviors as “movements.” People will get behind and support movements more than protocols or rules that someone else imposes on them. Usnik suggests people review the standards and processes set forth by ISO 26000 – guidelines established by the International Organization for Standardization.

We need to identify actions at every level of an organization that contribute to the sum of a brand’s persona and character. We must look at our hiring practices, the questions we ask, our advertising images and statements, our treatment of employees, the actions of our managers and other leaders, the types of conversations we have with all of our constituents, down to the adjectives we use.

How Do Change and Commitment Build Brands?

We as humans, consumers, and citizens want to be part of something that not only furthers our values; we want to be part of the change we want to see in the world, as Ghandi stated. When the brands we work for enable us to do so, and self-actualize within our job environments, we are not just loyal, we are driven to help our businesses succeed well beyond our job descriptions. This kind of employee loyalty is key to success now and will be for years to come.

Per Cone Communications on CSR and consumer choice and loyalty, and other studies by Nielsen, consumers make purchasing choices according to values and how much a brand gives back to people, causes, and the earth. Some of the brands who will rise above the chaos now and in the future largely because they operate according to an established list of values for supporting people, causes, and our planet are Patagonia, Tom’s Shoes, Gymboree, Warby Parker, Uncommon Goods, and many more. You can view a long list of brands that have committed to being good and doing good here.

I remember hearing the late poet and civil right activist, Maya Angelou, explain in an interview that she once asked some of her friends at a party at her own house to leave immediately because they were making derogatory comments about a racial or ethnic group, and she would not allow that energy in her home.

Years later, I remember this statement and try to reflect on it regarding the energy I put into my work; at home for my family and self; as well as within my thoughts, words and deeds, in an effort to assure that my actions reflect the values I believe I have, want to have, and want to promote to others.

I encourage business leaders to ponder the same as leaders set the culture through their actions more than their words.

When it comes to addressing issues of the time, of the future, and of the past it really comes down to those simple words Earl Graves told me year ago:

“People need to know what you say and what you do are going to be the same.”

Brands Cannot Be Silent and Ignore Injustice

While some brands may be reluctant to enter political discussions, the state of race, racial violence, and police brutality in America is more than politics. And your consumers and employees care deeply about combating violence and racism.

Following the horrific death of George Floyd, which sparked protests not only in the U.S. but around the world, countless influencers and celebrities spoke out across social media and online platforms to fight racism and support the Black Lives Matter movement.

While some brands may be reluctant to enter political discussions, the state of race, racial violence, and police brutality in America is more than politics. And your consumers and employees care deeply about combating violence and racism.

One brand that continues to demonstrate bravery when it comes to addressing race relations is Nike, who released a new ad across its digital channels. The ad featured plain white text over a black screen stating:

For once, don’t do it.

Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.

Don’t turn your back on racism.

Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us.

Don’t make any more excuses.

Don’t think this doesn’t affect you.

Don’t sit back and be silent.

Don’t think you can’t be part of the change.

Let’s all be part of the change.

Nike doesn’t shy away from taking a stand on issues of race, evident from their Colin Kaepernick ad in Sept. 2018. There were many other brands that made statements on social media in response to the tragedy, including the NFL, Netflix, and Ben & Jerry’s, to name a few. Following its original May 30 post, Netflix shared the following on June 10, letting followers know of its intention to highlight Black storytelling:

There also have been brands that have pledged significant donations to related organizations and initiatives, including Warby Parker and Peloton.

Standing up and addressing societal issues isn’t a new concept in marketing. Marketing leaders have been talking about and advising brands to be brave and bold for years. But there are still some brands too hesitant to speak out and take action. Why?

You don’t need significant resources to communicate your support and condolences, but you must be genuine and authentic in however you share your message. Accept that you can’t please everyone and there will be critics, but sharing your support and values is important. When speaking out about social issues, consider the following:

  • Talk to your employees: Use internal channels to reach employees and initiate a two-way conversation.
  • Think about the appropriate channels: Social media can be an ideal place to join the dialogue, but you may have a good reason to email your subscribers.

And where it’s possible, find ways to align with a cause that complements your brand’s values and focuses on supporting racial and social justice.

Consumers and employees want to know that brands are paying attention and will not tolerate inequality, violence, and prejudice. Now is the time to make a statement and help facilitate change.

Social Commentary in Authentic Brand Messaging

Should brands act, behave and communicate like people? Authenticity must be the measure. The content of any social commentary needs to be driven from the core principles of what the brand stands for — rather than from a cookie-cutter response at what competitors may be doing or saying.

Should brands act, behave, and communicate like people?

I’m sick and angry. It may seem like 1968 this past week — but folks, it’s 2020. Can’t we have a generation raised that eschews privilege based on race, and just respects each individual, all individuals, with love and merit as our default?

Obviously this is a personal perspective, and thank you for allowing me to indulge. So let me also ask again: Can and should brands make such statements of their own?

Content: Getting Past the Predictable to the Unique

This past week, I was fortunate to listen in on a Direct Marketing Club of New York “midweek recharge” teleconference on COVID-19 and brand loyalty, led by current DMCNY President Ginger Conlon and Deb Gabor, principal and founder of Sol Marketing (Austin, TX). How ironic that our inboxes are filled with “We’re all in this together” type messages from brands, while this past week we’re also very much reminded that, in reality, we really are not all in this together. People of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, just as they are with police brutality and a host of other societal aspects.

Gabor was insistent that brands very much act like people — and should. Authenticity must be the measure, however, in what they have to say, she reported. The content of such messages needs to be driven from the core principles of what the brand stands for, rather than from a cookie-cutter response at what competitors may be doing or saying.

With regard to COVID-19, one might think of ways brands could communicate to customers about how they are protected when doing business with the brand. But is this the best, first message?

Perhaps, a more important constituency might come first: how these messages are stronger when they focus on employee well-being and a thankfulness for first-responders and essential workers. I duly appreciate Wal-Mart and Amazon brands for emphasizing these aspects in their current advertising and marketing. Certainly, these brands are not without vulnerability. There’s much attention on such brands regarding living wages and labor participation in the management of their business strategies, even as they hire thousands of workers amid this employment crisis.

Unique Statements Anchored in Core Values and Empathy

We cannot forget about empathy, and how this must be part of any brand social commentary regarding race, gender, sexual identity, or housing and economic status. As Americans, we need to draw a line anywhere where discrimination and hate, ambivalence or indifference, rears its ugly head. Ben & Jerry clearly shows where it stands on Black Lives Matters, and minces no words:

Even in the world of ad tech, we’ve seen some powerful statements, such as this one from San Francisco-based TechSoup, a company which offers software solutions in the philanthropy community, and is putting its resources to work. In an email, CEO Rebecca Masisak and Chief Community Impact Officer Marnie Webb co-wrote:

We need more than the reallocation of resources; we need systems changed. We need to be a part of that, in our organization, in our communities, and in our country.

This is what we are doing right now to address a piece of the crisis in the U.S.:

• Continue to investigate our own privilege so that we can embed racial equity into our work.

• Make the reach of our platforms available for the voices that need to be heard. Right now, at this moment, that means:

• Active listening

• Amplifying the messages of Black-led community organizations, philanthropists, and journalists

• Inviting others who want to make use of our platform to use it to share their messages and engage others in communication

• Raise money to defray the costs and support the optimization of technology for Black-led organizations and community groups.

Brands and Support for Democracy

Among trade associations, cheers, too, for the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) for enabling its employees this week to dedicate paid time off each month to work for social change:

These brands are indeed acting like people — because they are composed of people (investors, owners, customers, employees) who are motivated to share their values in a powerful way. Not every brand may be in a position to speak on racial injustice, or COVID-19, with authenticity. But we — as members of the human race — might best stand for each other. What other choice do good folks, and good brands, have?

 

Resilience and Reinvention: 2 ‘Essentials’ Brands Need to Practice Now

As marketers and consumers alike have felt the effects of the pandemic, there are ways to rise above the challenges of being compromised or shuttered as our country has sheltered in place to avoid COVID-19. There are two attributes of the human spirit that have helped societies thrive: resilience and reinvention.

As marketers and consumers alike have felt the effects of the pandemic over the past couple of months, there are ways to rise above the challenges of being compromised or shuttered as our country has sheltered in place to avoid COVID-19. There are two attributes of the human spirit that have helped societies rise above and thrive — despite the odds and tragic setbacks out of one’s individual control — resilience and reinvention.

Resilience

Difficulties often force us to look at life from different angles, and quite often those angles reveal opportunities we wouldn’t face otherwise.  One of the things we hear from friends and colleagues, and admit to even ourselves, is that while sheltering in place we’ve learned what really matters, what we really need, and what we don’t. Focusing on “essentials” is a positive we can apply to all aspects of our lives.

In business, we are learning to do more with less, and as customers we are learning to expect less of the “thrills” in order to meet our “essential” needs, like being able to go to a store vs. shop online and hope we get something on time. Our values are changing out of necessity and these values are likely to linger longer than the rules of social distancing.

This is an ideal time for businesses across sectors to rethink the “extras” designed to add value, and focus on ways to deliver the quality and service your customers need without adding to your overhead. Consider:

Reward Programs: I can’t believe I, the person evangelizing customer experience for years, is suggesting to drop your rewards program, but I am. For at least now. Customers want you to stay in business and have learned to focus on “essential” vs. “extra” perks. Cutting out “Free This and Free That” can help you protect your cash flow and get back in the black as we re-open the economy.

Chances are, if you run the numbers, you’ll find a lower percentage of customers cashing in those awards than you think, and when this is the case it is not likely to cause you to lose customers. Right now, customers are just happy to be able to shop again, and want to keep their favorite businesses in business more than they want that “free gift.”

Hours of Operation: So you open earlier and close later to make it more convenient for customers, right? But those extra two hours could be costing you potentially thousands a year, and may not be generating that much in return. While it may make sense to open earlier for particular customer groups (such as having some early morning hours for senior citizens or the immuno-compromised to shop more easily) the current environment doesn’t dictate additional convenience. Now, most customers are just grateful to have you open for a short period of time and are willing to adjust their schedules around you.

Audit Your Inventory: There was a time when customers would buy those cute non-essential items near the cash registers or on the endcaps of aisle just because they could. I’m guessing that when we are all free to move around our worlds and shop freely, in person, at live stores vs. virtual platforms, this will change. Many of us consumers have learned to get by with less, and we’ve learned that “stuff” is just that – stuff.

By eliminating some of those non-essentials from your shelves and counters, you reduce your costs to operate, set yourself up to get to profitable sales volumes faster, and simplify the shopping experience as customers are allowed back in your stores. Now more than ever, the old adage, of “less is more” is critical to live by.

Reinvention 

There are plenty of stories about businesses that are making ventilators instead of cars; making face masks instead of clothing; and the like. This is a powerful and critical strategy for all businesses in all categories as we come out of a shuttered economy. Our world has changed and so must we all if we want to rise above and thrive as we move forward.

Reinventing your business(es) applies to not just what you offer customers, but how you operate within the community. Consider this example:

A company making backpacks and duffel bags wasn’t getting any orders. So they offered to use their production facilities to help a local manufacturer of medical protective gear produce more of what was needed instead of focusing more on their products. As a result, that company has kept its people busy and company healthy. They also started making and selling T-shirts as a fundraiser to help raise money to be able to support more healthcare workers on the frontline. The company donated more than $30,000 from their T-shirt campaign, which will pay off much more as people remember that brand and choose to support them when they can purchase more freely again.

Ponder on how can you collaborate with other companies that are fitting a more “essential” need than yours, so you can keep busy, pay employees, and “reinvent” your relevance beyond just the core business you once had.

Another example is a business videographer I work with who isn’t booking those big events due to cancellations. To keep his name top-of-mind for the hopefully near future of business events again, he has started a tutorial offering. He is creating DIY videos and e-books to help clients do their own videos while they can’t afford his services, knowing that when they are back in their groove, he will be too.

The act of reinventing is not always about finding new products to sell, but about finding new ways to collaborate and expand your network while you add to your service lines. Instead, it’s about being relevant, present, and valuable so that the relationships you have in place will still be the ones that help you move forward and resume life as you once knew it.

No matter the nature or size of size your business, use this “time out” of your normal routine to contemplate ways to rise above by refocusing your time, money, energy, and resources on what matters and identify ways you can eliminate waste. Put energy into focusing your creativity on ways to collaborate with others in your community, reinvent your products to fit the needs of customers now, and add affordable services that meet current and future needs. Investing some energy into resilience and reinvention will pay off now, as well as later.

More than anything, keep believing in the you that has achieved the success you have, and do it all again. Shine on!