brand story & messaging, strategy

3 ways to build your brand story through turbulent times

Sandra Stewart | November 30, 2020

Photo by Joel Muniz/Unsplash

Think of a company that did something daft this year. Did you wince and then shrug it off with a “well, we’re all struggling to figure things out right now”? Or did you immediately fire off a mean tweet and enjoy some meme-fueled schadenfreude?

Either way, you were undoubtedly influenced by the brand story—a combination of what that company says about itself, what others say about it, your experience of it, and what you know about its actions in the world. A muddled or negative brand story opens the door to pile-ons. A clear, compelling, defensible brand story is gold: it draws people to a company in good times, keeps them loyal in bad, and inspires tolerance of its inevitable slip-ups.

A strong brand story is not a set-it-and-forget-it asset, though: because a brand story is always being told, companies must constantly reinforce it through action and communication. That’s taxing in turbulent times, when the line between clever initiative and embarrassing misstep gets harder to discern and internal challenges can lead to tunnel vision. The solution is to focus on fundamentals: lean into your mission, listen to your stakeholders before acting, and act before speaking. With those principles in mind, here are three strategies for building your brand through whatever happens next.

1. Ramp up thought leadership

Unsettled periods create both opportunity and demand for fresh thinking. Now is the time to send your company’s ideas into the world. That could mean visionary thinking: What’s around the corner? How can the world rethink the way things are done in your field? What changes are in store for your sector? Or it could mean practical solutions for immediate problems. Regardless, the most effective thought leadership combines a fresh perspective, a clear point of view, utility to others and generosity.

This strategy is especially important for B2Bs, which have to work harder to gain media attention amid multiple major, ongoing news stories but have the opportunity to emerge as clear leaders in their field during times of crisis.

2. Show your mission and values in action

Illustrating your mission and vision at work in the world is a primary way to build brand strength. This principle applies to all your stated values, but it is particularly relevant in relation to racial justice, equity and diversity. (This HBR article provides a good framework for thinking about how you show up in this area.)

Climate change is another issue that sustainable enterprises can’t afford to ignore, and businesses that are committed to being part of the solution have plenty of collective action opportunities to amplify their voices. Contributions to pandemic survival also are worth talking about if you lead by example and meaningfully assist your communities, employees and customers.

3. Put your people in the spotlight

It’s a truism of brand strategy that your people are your brand, and that’s most apparent during a crisis. Highlight how they’ve helped—or led—the actions you’ve taken. Tell first-person stories of going through the pandemic crisis: how your team and partners have adapted, pivoted and otherwise survived. Share stories about what it’s like to experience this moment inside your enterprise. Communications like these put a human face on your brand and encourage connection.

One caveat here: make sure your employees truly feel valued before doing this—if they feel overburdened and under-rewarded, fix that before painting a picture of team spirit.

Sustainable businesses led the way on the developing the multiple-stakeholder model of capitalism now embraced—though not (yet?) embodied—by America’s largest corporations. With our current crises amplifying calls to rethink American capitalism (the theme of this new McKinsey report) they can build the next generation’s most beloved brands. It starts with telling the story—and then burnishing it over time.

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