Grey London’s Jess Smith: now’s the time for brands to deliver true meaning

A study in early 2019 found that 77% of brands sold across Europe could disappear tomorrow and people would not care. It’s a pretty brutal reminder that much of the work of the industry in recent years, has failed to make any meaningful impact.

But the past two months have painted a different picture. Yuvel Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, asserted that crises “fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours.” The scene looks similar for many brands.

The recent crisis has seen many behave like they’re on steroids, innovating and adapting at exceptional pace. From my local organic wine bar (yes, I do live in East London) setting up delivery, to the Netflix Party extension that syncs remote viewing and the amazing adaptions of all of the UK’s supermarkets. So many brands are showing true empathy, easing the strains of the lockdown and earning prized roles in the lives of the people they serve.

Longer term, it’s going to be really challenging. Culture and behaviour have been severely disrupted and whilst not everything will change for good, there will be big shifts in the landscape. To touch on just a few: Our consumption values have been challenged, many of us realising that it’s people and experiences we miss most, not stuff.

Higher demand for e-commerce is likely to challenge supply chains and also see shoppers demand better digital product experiences.

Layer on top dark economic times and it makes the wash-up from Brexit look like child’s play.

Brands will need to work harder, innovating and creating greater meaning and value, to earn their place in the future lives of audiences. And rightly so. People will have been through a lot. Some experiencing more trauma and loss than others. Nevertheless, there is little doubt the world is going to emerge from this crisis a little more raw, sentimental and fragile.

But restriction and hardship have always been close friends of creativity and innovation. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has used this to fuel one of the most innovative companies in the world: “One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out of it.”

And some great brand innovations have emerged off the back of hard times.

During the great depression Nestlé needed to preserve a huge surplus of coffee. They invented instant coffee. Unilever grew its business through soap format innovation from bars to flakes and powder, through the hardship of the 1930s and onset of World War 2. Tide was launched a year after the end of WW2, and by 1950 was America’s favourite laundry detergent, owing its success to superior performance and a great value proposition. It would go on to be a global mega, billion-dollar brand for P&G.

Recession is the ultimate stress test for brands. Grow during these times and you prove your role is important in the worlds of the people you serve. The last one saw many brands that are thriving today lay the foundation for great success.

By 2008 Netflix had transformed from a DVD subscription service to an entertainment streaming platform. To seize a penetration opportunity during a time when audiences had reduced out-of-home entertainment budgets, they kept their prices low. It’s rather telling that 12 years later, during another crisis, they’re a brand that many across the world couldn’t do without.

Likewise, Airbnb really started hitting it stride post 2009, understanding younger travellers were looking for not only better value, but better accommodation experiences, and that city dwellers may also be looking for additional revenue streams. We also saw the inception of Uber, WhatsApp and Instagram, all highly valued brands in the world today.

It is staggering to think that 4 out of 5 brands fail to create any real meaning in people lives. But the recent resourcefulness and ingenuity of many brands proves that we can do better. And don’t we owe the world better?

Jess Smith is strategy director of Grey London.

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