Over the past six months, we’ve all gone through an existential work crisis. Between a pandemic and the need for racial equity, ongoing protests and civil unrest, brand flexibility is a necessity if you want to keep the ship afloat.
The future is uncertain, leaving us to wonder how the school year will pan out, or whether the next Zoom link will work. Travel plans to exotic destinations have been put on hold. Day by day, we’re adapting to ever-changing safety protocols. Hour by hour, we’re juggling new technology platforms.
It’s enough to make you crazy.
We’ve all been forced to embrace change, and this includes brands. Those who are responding to the cultural atmosphere are experiencing the bounty—and the backlash—that comes with it.
For some brands and their employees, this means making monumental shifts to where and how they work—like migrating to a work from anywhere model. For other brands, those shifts come in the form of their supply chain. Take, for instance, restaurant brands that have nearly overnight placed licensed food items on shelves across America. Still for others, it’s product innovation and digital marketing: accelerating new product initiatives to meet the demands of the modern workforce, or engaging customers not face to face, but digitally.
Brands like Amazon Flex (the division of self-employed drivers who show up at your door to deliver Amazon packages) are leaning into the reasons why people work, recognizing that today’s workplace must serve our personal need for flexibility, not the other way around.
Amazon Flex got behind why drivers do what they do and positioned themselves as the only gig economy brand that is driven by “you.”
So while our behaviors are drastically changing and we’re at the apex of flexibility in our daily lives, the one thing that seems the most inflexible is our beliefs.
Yep, those things.
Left and Right. Democrat, Republican, Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, protests in our cities where ideologies clash. As new terminology to address these entrenched belief systems emerge faster than Urban Dictionary can jot it down (travel shaming, wokeness, cancel culture, cultural appropriation, equity vs. equality, etc.), brands and the marketers within them have to adapt to the nuances of stakeholder beliefs without undermining their own.
I’ve always said that brands are just people bound together by beliefs—and ambition. Beliefs shape how a company manifests, what kind of people it invests in, the values that a brand holds dear, and the posture it presents to the world. Despite the potential pitfalls, belief is where brands have a crucial role to play in society at this very moment.
It begs the question: What does your brand have to say about racial equality? About safety? About freedom? Are you about bringing people together, or are you about drawing battle lines? Is your brand poised to cut the tension with humor or with sincerity? Dare we enter the fray? And if we do, how do we ensure we’re not alienating the stakeholder base that’s built our success?
With consumers that cross the spectrum—socially, politically, ethnically—brands have a unique opportunity to bridge the divide. How? By fostering an environment inclusive of the tensions that reflect this moment in history. What does that mean? It means we don’t have to ignore the elephant in the room. That we may have to help people agree to disagree. It means we may have to be the ones to break the tension with a well-placed joke or with thoughtful communication that reminds us of our collective humanity. But most of all, it means we must employ nimbleness to navigate such an era of polarized consumer beliefs. As well as a little discernment.
Uber made a strong stance with its anti-racism campaign, but experienced backlash because of it.
In late August, Uber stepped on a landmine with their provocative campaign against racism. Love it or hate it, they attempted to draw the battle lines with copy that boldly read: “If you tolerate racism, delete Uber.” Though well-received by many, Uber was also criticized publicly for what some perceived to be an opportunistic move. Bogged down by employee rights issues and claims of misogyny from the brand’s earlier days, Uber nevertheless committed itself to racial equity and made that commitment public. And while the statement—and the ensuing outrage over its perceived hypocrisy—has since drifted from the news, it marked an important boundary for brands: To further divide people based on binary beliefs may come with unexpected consumer backlash. Against the rapidly growing landscape of “cancel culture” and consumer tendencies to love a brand today, hate them tomorrow, perhaps there’s a better way.
If you’re not quite ready to draw the battle lines, how can you reinforce brand values while catering to a more universal set of beliefs? Below are three proven strategies for taking your brand beliefs into culture without disenfranchising your base:
1. Provide a safe space for consumers to share.
Beer is one of those things that brings people together—no matter who you are or what you believe. Heineken’s “Worlds Apart” campaign demonstrated this so well by staging a place where people with opposing views on all sorts of issues could talk about their beliefs and backgrounds, while breaking down biases and barriers—all while sharing a beer. We need more of this. Consider how to facilitate conversations between consumers who share a common love for your brand.
Heineken used a social experiment to show that we have more in common than we think.
2. Be a consumer confidant through empathy.
Let’s face it, it’s been an emotional roller coaster of a year for everyone. And Iceland’s recent travel campaign, “Let It All Out,” acknowledged the inner turmoil and pent-up frustrations we’re all feeling right now. Better yet, it focused on the emotional letting go of all that tension by asking consumers to record their own unbridled scream that would later be released in the wilds of Iceland. In doing so, Iceland perfectly positioned itself as the place where you can let it all out while practicing extreme social distancing. Brilliant.
Iceland’s “Let It All Out” campaign tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of people who just need to let it out.
3. Cultivate a culture of care.
We live in an era where employee voices have never been stronger. Indeed, they have the ability to guide a brand through the nuances of our modern age. As the first line of advocacy—and the last line of defense—for a brand, employees need to feel secure in knowing their employer has their back. In June of this year, Manifesto completed an 18-month rebrand of Paylocity and punctuated our work with their anthem video, called Care At The Core. Paylocity recognized that the brand’s unique point of differentiation is rooted in the personalized care they have for their own employees, for their clients, and for their partners. Remaining flexible to the ever-changing needs of its workforce as well as the marketplace allowed Paylocity to emerge in June with a strong growth trajectory and absolute adoration from their clients.
Paylocity hit pay dirt when it repositioned itself as a company founded on a culture of care.
If I were talking to a person or a brand, I’d say the same thing: Brand flexibility requires discernment. Discernment requires listening. And we need more of both. If we seek to unite more than to divide, we express a value greater than any one of our single brands can champion: the value of unity.
Tim Dyer is Chief Storyteller and Managing Partner of Manifesto. Manifesto is a brand declaration agency that rallies humans around the heart of the world’s most ambitious brands. Manifesto has offices in Portland, OR and Milwaukee, WI and many conspirators in between.