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April 2021

Making your brand fit for the future

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Over the last year, our lives have changed beyond recognition. The same goes for businesses. We’re all relying on a successful vaccine rollout but, even after that, organisations will be needing to recalibrate, and quickly, to catch up with a world that has gone through perhaps decades of changes in just over a year. And we know it’s not over yet. We don’t know what the future holds – even predicting just weeks ahead is more difficult than ever. But as a business, you need to plan and think ahead to what’s going to matter for your organisation and your audiences. So, when considering your brand, how can you realign it to the new world we’re finding ourselves in – whatever that world is going to be?

We’re going to take a look at six ways you can make your brand fit for the future. From messaging to digital, here are our recommendations for the things you need to be considering now.

1. Build your brand around change

Our world is constantly changing, and that has never been more true than over the last year. As you look at your brand you think, ‘How can I future-proof my brand if things are always changing?’. It’s a conundrum. You don’t want to be constantly revisiting your brand and yet you want to ensure it can move with the times.

One answer is to build your brand around the idea of change. If change is what the brand is about then, by definition, this sets it up to be able to evolve in the future. We looked at a few companies who have positioned themselves successfully like this. There are two ways to do it – the bold and the subtle. Take the bold. This is about driving the idea of change consistently across everything you do. It doesn’t mean a completely new website necessarily, but focusing on relevant content and applying a new ‘skin’ around change across your communications will work well. If you’re going bold, all of your content and communications will need to be seen through this lens of change. From talking about how you work with clients, to your employer brand, to insights, everything will be refocused to centre around change and embracing it – we’ve even seen examples where companies have renamed their thought leadership series to include ‘change’ in the title. It may sound a bit much, but it can be effective in its single-mindedness.

We then have the more subtle route. In the examples we looked at, change is integral to the brand’s positioning and although it doesn’t necessarily headline across all communications it’s there behind the scenes – in a sub-heading, or in the nuance of a job description, or in a thought leadership piece about innovation.

So, in a world where everything is changing, build your brand around change and you’ll be on your way to future-proofing it successfully.

2. Show you get what ‘fit for the future’ means

This is crucial. If you’re going to make your brand fit for the future, you have to show your audiences that you understand what this requires. Here, we thought it might be interesting to look at a couple of companies from highly-contentious sectors to see what they were doing. After all, if you’re an oil or arms, or tobacco or mining company, you have to work hard to show your relevance in a future where we’re trying to protect our environment, our health and our world. So, who does it well, and who does it not so well?

We looked at one of the big mining companies who we felt managed this well. They tackle the issues around their sector head-on, and that gives them credibility. They don’t make excuses. Instead, they show how they’re reimagining operations to improve people’s lives. They are open about their progress on sustainability and give clear, measurable ways to improve, claiming and owning their goals. They talk candidly about what they’re doing to help communities, including specific sustainability programmes and initiatives. They position themselves as sector leaders, paving the way to truly shift the role they and their counterparts should play in the future. They’re proud and loud about it, and by using tangible proof points they show they’re not just talking about it they’re doing it.

On the other hand, take a well-known tobacco company. They talk about ‘creating a better tomorrow’, but somehow this claim isn’t believable in the context of their sector, however it’s dressed up. It needs a different headline altogether. They talk about widening their product portfolio – which is all well and good until you realise they’re extending to include vaping machines – and how that helps build this better tomorrow isn’t clear. Their social media wasn’t much better, with imagery of scantily-clad women promoting their products which, apart from the obvious gender diversity issue feels like something from the 1970s. As a result, they come across as a brand stuck in a very distant past, rather than one that has grasped the sense of the future and where it’s leading.

3. Hardwire D&I into your employer brand

D&I is a subject that has, quite rightly, attracted increasing interest. If your brand is going to be fit for the future then D&I must be embedded as an intrinsic part of it. Show what your company is doing, using real-life examples to try to demonstrate that you’re making D&I a fundamental part of how you operate (because those organisations furthest ahead truly believe that a more diverse organisation means better business).

Those organisations who put their proof points front and centre – stories from real employees about how the company’s D&I policies have affected them and made their lives better – come across as the most authentic. Written content, film or social media can all be effective for sharing these stories. Ultimately, the best examples are clear about what makes their organisation inclusive and what that means for its people in a credible way.

However, real-life examples may not always be right for everyone. A more understated way of talking about D&I can also work. A global investment bank we looked at takes a more corporate stance, with their messaging focusing on why it’s important for the organisation and what it means for employees and clients. They present a lot of content with useful information, about their various D&I networks, their partnerships and their communities. They highlight recent awards they’ve won – the proof points that show they’re recognised for their progress.

Whatever way you choose to talk about D&I, it’s important to be open about your goals. No-one gets it right all the time yet, and many companies still have a long way to go. By being clear about what you’re trying to achieve and by when you’ll convey a more honest D&I journey, which is therefore a more effective one too.

4. Create a better normal, not a new normal

The phrase ‘the new normal’ has become a key part of our vocabulary. The problem is that eventually, whatever that normal is going to be, it will cease to be new. So, we wanted to dig a little deeper into the language we’re using for brand positioning. The future provides an opportunity to reframe what ‘normal’ is going to be. In the context of the last year, the superlatives that may have been used in the past no longer seem appropriate. And while we’re not a fan of the word ‘new’, we really like the word ‘better’. It’s a word that’s honest and grounded, but it also needs to be used carefully because it’s now being used a lot. You want to avoid your key message becoming corporate buzzword bingo.

A couple of years ago, we worked with an outsourcing company on their employer brand. Their brand positioning was about creating better places to live, work and travel and we felt strongly that the employer brand should resonate strongly with that. Our employer brand positioning focused on the idea of ‘being the better’ so, in other words, taking pride in making a difference and also being that difference. Fast forward to 2020 and this company’s employees, formerly seen as support services behind the scenes of our everyday lives were suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the crucial frontline workers keeping everything going. This necessitated a fundamental shift in brand positioning for the master brand, which was recentred around the idea of personal pride and public service. We believe that was absolutely the right decision in the circumstances because it works in the context of the world now, and what we know after the last year. It’s also fit for the future, because it’s about giving people freedom to perform and do their best, which is better for the public they serve, and better for the employees too.

Re-examining your brand language might therefore feel appropriate at this point. What may have been laughed at in 2019 feels right for the world we now find ourselves in, and being a little more reflective is no bad thing.

5. Keep it simple, make it strong

Now is really the time to make sure your digital expression is creative and powerful. By keeping things simple, we believe you can deliver on that. One of our clients recently told us they had done analysis that showed they had gone through 10 years’ worth of digital acceleration in just three months, and we’re sure this is a similar story across many organisations.

We took a look at those organisations who we felt do it best, and the qualities that make their digital offering special. Things don’t have to be complicated. A corporate brochure, produced digitally, can really get across your message and convey your organisation’s character. The best examples we saw were vivid and beautiful – it’s a book, it’s a website, it’s a whole experience. And yet the technology used to deliver it is simple, with page flipping software that effectively digitises a pdf or hard copy content. Elsewhere, animation is used to good effect, creating a dynamism and energy and bringing you, the audience, closer to the organisation. These organisations also do social media well, with well-branded and well-designed, regular content that reflects the master brand.

You need to strike the right balance of course, keeping it straightforward but also being bold with your message. Great content is key to creating that balance. It can be playful, it can be serious, but always make sure it’s coherent and consistent. If you’re talking about your organisation and what it stands for, be clear about your values, and how your behaviours align. If you’re designing an app, ensure it’s easy to use and keep it simple – not everyone has the very latest iPhone. Back up your web and social content with good communications. Emails should have clarity and reflect the great content you have elsewhere online. Make sure emails are visual – a lot of people won’t scroll down to read reams of copy. Email is a great way to demonstrate your thought leadership but, again, stick to a couple of short and punchy pieces. And always link back to your website so there’s a call to action built into your communications.

6. Experiment, test and learn

We wanted to explore a bit more about social media and the newer platforms we can learn from. If we had said to you 18 months ago that b2b organisations should leverage Instagram more, we might have been laughed at. But in fact, Instagram has become a really powerful platform now for these organisations, particularly over the last year, with organisations able to show their authentic selves – effectively.

TikTok is a platform that’s seen a rapid growth as part of organisations’ communications toolkits. We’ve seen great examples of companies using it really effectively to build awareness and build their brands in what has been a challenging time, often using furloughed staff to create the content – a great way to keep them engaged. Many people see TikTok as a ‘young person’s’ platform and it’s true that the majority of current users are aged 18-24. However, there’s growing evidence that this is shifting and that older age groups are starting to engage with TikTok in greater numbers. TikTok itself is working hard to change perceptions, collaborating with educators, subject experts and not-for-profits to shift the dial and attract older generations to the platform. There are some canny b2b organisations that have found ways to make TikTok work for them, for example for graduate recruitment to broaden their reach to candidates, engaging far greater numbers than they’ve done before through traditional graduate recruitment channels. The powerful thing about TikTok is that it’s user-generated and therefore feels credible. It has an immediacy, honesty and power that makes you feel you’re there in the moment with the poster. Particularly clever examples incorporate popular culture references to engage the right audiences at the right time – the films can have a serious message, but the essence of the platform prevents them from taking themselves too seriously. Used as part of a broader digital communications toolkit, TikTok could be a great way to engage with a different set of audiences in a new and future-focused way.

Conclusion

So, in summary, building your brand around change can help to create a brand that’s dynamic and future-proofed. Show that you understand what the future is going to mean for your organisation and audiences, focusing on the things that matter to them. Make D&I an intrinsic part of your brand, and not an add-on. Take care over your language and ensure you have a powerful digital presence that’s nevertheless kept simple and strong. And, finally, explore new social media platforms and think of the ways you could use them effectively. Making your brand fit for the future is about considering all these aspects, but always bringing it back to your organisation and what it means for you to ensure you remain authentic and relevant.

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