Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, and about Brody Moments (from Jaws’ Police Chief Brody and his famous line “you’re going to need a bigger boat”) related to the coronavirus.
Today, we talk with Emily Heyward, author of OBSESSED: Building a Brand People Love from Day One. Emily is the Co-founder and Chief Brand Officer at Red Antler, where she helps founders develop purposeful, strategic visions for their startups and has led branding efforts for top companies such as Casper, Allbirds, and Boxed. In 2018, Red Antler made Fast Company’s list of Most Innovative Companies in Marketing and Advertising and was dubbed the “cult brand whisperer.” Emily was named among the Most Important Entrepreneurs of the Decade by Inc., and one of Entrepreneur's Most Powerful Women of 2019.
David and David: When did you realize the pandemic was about to impact your day-to-day life and work? What was your Brody Moment?
Emily: Without going so far as to paint myself as Mayor Vaughn from Jaws, let’s just say I was overly optimistic in the early days of the pandemic, and never imagined we’d be in the scenario we now find ourselves. A couple of weeks before we all started working from home, our Chief People Officer strongly suggested that we get everyone on the team laptops in anticipation. And I remember thinking at the time that it felt overly precautious, but I trusted her judgment, and we did it, and of course I’m so grateful that we did. So maybe instead of a Brody Moment, I had a “listen to Brody” moment, which I think can be just as valuable as a leader, and I’m sure in hindsight Mayor Vaughn would agree.
David and David: What are the biggest challenges for branding and marketing teams right now? And what about startups and new ventures that are trying to build and launch brands in the next few months?
Emily: For brand-builders and marketers, as well as startups, there’s obviously the short term challenge of trying to strike the right tone, and navigate how to communicate during a time of great anxiety and hardship for so many people. You don’t want to come across as insensitive or oblivious, but there’s only so many times a brand can say “we’re here for you!” and have it feel genuine. In the longer term, marketers and founders are always trying to stay ahead - you don’t want to just follow trends, you want to set them. And we’ve never had less visibility into what’s around the corner. Not just regarding when things will get “back to normal,” but also what will normal even look like, what will be the lasting psychological and economic effects, will people keep baking so much bread? Whatever you’re building now needs to be relevant not just for this moment, but ideally for years to come. That means you need to figure out how to make sense within the pandemic, which is difficult enough, but also ensure the ability to adapt to whatever happens on the other side.
David and David: In your new book OBSESSED, you explore how customers become obsessed with brands that feel human and become part of their identity. Is that still a competitive advantage right now? If brands don’t already have obsessed customers, are there things they can do to make progress even now?
Emily: I absolutely think the brands that feel more human and more closely aligned with people’s identities have an advantage right now, for two reasons. One is that people are being more thoughtful about their purchases. Many people are feeling the economic uncertainty of this moment, and are therefore more likely to spend money on brands that they feel a close connection with, versus making purchases that feel frivolous. Two is that people are seeking reassurance and familiarity amidst all this change and uncertainty, and treating yourself to something from a beloved brand can be a source of comfort and joy. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for the brands that are still trying to make it. In fact, this is a moment of opportunity because people are questioning everything, and a lot of the habits and purchases they used to take for granted are either harder to come by, or have lost their relevance. But progress won’t come from a clever marketing campaign. The brands that will grow during this time will find new ways to add value to people’s lives, to challenge the status quo and to surpass people’s expectations.
David and David: When we’re beyond the current crisis and into a ‘new normal,’ what challenges do you see? What’s the future of branding in the new, post-Covid-19 world?
Emily: Specific challenges will vary greatly depending on the category, but generally speaking, we’ve been moving in the direction for a long time where brands have to work much harder to prove their worth and to earn people’s interest and loyalty. Consumers are continuously getting smarter and more sophisticated, with increasingly more choice and control. This is only going to be heightened post-Covid-19. Tolerance for anything that feels superficial or rings false will be at an all-time low, and brands will need to connect their marketing and messaging to genuine value propositions. It won’t be enough for brands to look different or talk different from their competition - they’ll need to be different.
David and David: Do you have any other advice you can offer? Parting words?
Emily: While it may seem like the entire world is on pause, this can actually be an incredible time to start a new business. We started Red Antler only moments before the global financial crisis in 2008, and took part in a wave of innovation that was inspired certainly in part by those adverse circumstances. People will be seeking new solutions, especially as they realize the ways in which they can’t rely on existing institutions. It’s a great time to think about how you can make people’s lives better, safer, healthier, and more meaningful, not just in this moment but far into the future.
Original article posted on Forbes on June 8, 2020
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