Approaching the Next Normal With a Sense of Purpose

The following article by Tripti Lochan, co-CEO of VMLY&R Asia, was published by Portfolio magazine. Click here to read the article on the Portfolio website.

People don’t just buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” This quote from Simon Sinek’s influential book Start With Why, is a sentiment that has continued to recur in my thoughts over the last few months, in light of the way the world continues to change since the Coronavirus outbreak.

With the world in lockdown and business priorities shifted to resilience planning amid widespread fear of illness, job losses, and general uncertainty, the world turned a critical eye on the way brands responded to the crisis, with many people turning to social media to remark upon what was good, bad, and downright awful.

Aside from this circus and the widespread discussion that continues to ripple through the industry around how brands should navigate the ‘new normal’, the first half of this year has also served in shining a wider spotlight on issues of social justice and inequality spanning race, gender, and sexual identity, while also pushing conversations around sustainability and the environment.

Exacerbated in times of crisis, it’s no wonder that brands who have done their part to support consumers during these difficult times, are also the ones proving most resilient to the increasingly challenging business environment.

A recent study by Edelman into brand trust and the Coronavirus pandemic underlined a public expectation that brands should act to find solutions, and be “tangible and fast, instead of selling passion or image”. Taking in 12,000 people across the world, respondents recognised the need for specific brand action to help address the societal challenges posed by Covid-19, with 71 percent agreeing that if they perceive that a brand is “putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever”.

This is also echoed by Accenture Strategy’s most recent global survey of nearly 30,000 consumers, which found that the closer a company’s purpose aligns to their consumers’ beliefs, the better, with “62 percent of customers favouring companies willing to take a stand on issues like sustainability, transparency or fair employment practices”.

Having a strong brand in challenging times is key to survival. During the last financial crisis, our BrandAsset Valuator’s (BAV) Top 50 Brands fell 15 percent less than the S&P 500 during the first year of the crash, and bounced back 33 percent faster in the year after.

And it’s clear that what makes a strong brand today is no longer solely based upon stalwarts of product differentiation and pricing, but is increasingly synonymous with whether a brand has an authentic purpose and is empathetic and emotionally connected to its consumers.

In Indonesia, Kraft Heinz sweet soy sauce brand Kecap ABC had been developing its purpose around ‘putting mothers first’ for some time, and saw real traction with consumers after launching Real Husband’s Cook, a campaign promoting gender equality in the country by encouraging men to take on more of the domestic burden. Found by the brand to be one of the main reasons for divorce, Heinz tackled the issue by teaching more than 150,000 Indonesian men how to cook via its Real Husbands Academy online, while engaging another 1,000 in a record-breaking cookout event. According to BAV, a comprehensive measure of consumer perception, the campaign resulted in generating the brand’s highest growth in ‘brand power’ and ‘differentiation’ to date, a boost that translated into a 12 percent increase in sales during the campaign period (2017-2019).

To be blunt, consumers caring about whether brands are empathetic and emotionally connected is not a new trend, but is one that has arguably been accelerated by the unprecedented circumstances in which we find ourselves. Afterall, there’s no playbook for this, so in these uncertain times, the only logical step is to understand more about what’s changing and why, all the while, turning the microscope on yourself for a dose of introspective pause to better align with your customer.

Customer-centricity then, is more important now than ever for brands and must be holistically informed, connected, empathetic, and at its very core, human. This goes hand in hand with customer experience, which as recent research from Salesforce demonstrates, may be just as important as a brand’s products and services, with 84 percent of customers in agreement, up from 80 percent in 2018.

The future then is simple, and is something that as a future-gazing agency, we are fully aligned, and that future is human-centred design for connected customer experiences.

So, what does this mean? Simply put, it’s about reframing our thinking by putting the human, who has traditionally always been the endpoint of the transaction, as the starting point of everything we do. It’s about finding the personal connection in order to create experiences that are deeply relevant and tailormade for the intended audience; helping consumers feel understood and involved. Only then can the customer experience be truly connected and authentic.

As an agency, we have committed ourselves to transforming our operation to this mode of thinking from the inside out via internal training for our teams at every level and function within the business, as well as applying our own unique design thinking methodologies and learnings to the benefit of our clients’ businesses.

But having a design thinking mindset, is only the start of creating truly connected customer experiences. In order to be truly effective, it’s important for brands to do the following:

Define your brand & its purpose through customer-centricity
Define what your brand stands for through meaningful actions that speak to your customers. In other words, be who you are trying to reach, and the rest will fall into place. Speak their language; be helpful and trustworthy; hangout where they hangout; be passionate about their passions and strong connections will follow.

Be empathetic through data 
As Google’s Head of Analytics Kevin Hartman points out: "Never have marketers known so much about their customers, but yet customers have never been more unhappy with marketing." The message is clear. Today, people live, work and play across a diverse and increasingly complex number of channels and touch points, which makes the traditional marketing method of putting people into boxes, seem insufficient and out-dated. Data allows us to be more personal and targeted than ever before, while understanding exactly what our customers care about most. Rather than making assumptions, data is fundamental for speaking in your customers’ language and reaching them at times and places which work for them, rather than the other way around.

Follow your heart and be human
Today, brand identity is everything, so taking the time to reflect and focus on the things that are important to you as an organisation and the culture you permeate is an important part of what makes you a brand. We are all human after all, so be human. At VMLY&R, diversity and inclusivity in the workplace is of paramount importance to us. It’s how we want to live and the culture we want to permeate – one of acceptance, equality, respect and opportunities for all people. This led to the development of PridePass, an initiative recently launched in partnership with Fortune 500 recruitment firm Manpower Group. Borne out of an understanding of the employment challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in Asia and across the world, PridePass lets inclusive businesses see their jobs appear on the PridePass aggregator website for free by tagging #PridePass in their online job listings. Creating a space for the LGBTQ+ community to find jobs from inclusive employers is a simple idea, but we hope a powerful one, which also helps to underline our commitment as an organisation to creating a more equal and inclusive workplace for all.

Be innovative and multichannel-oriented
As technology continues to evolve with the advent of 5G; the boom in Internet of Things (IoT) technologies revolutionising our homes, cars and what we wear, plus virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) literally reshaping the way we view the world, there are endless ways in which brands can connect with customers in new, exciting and innovative ways which excite and entertain to create more positive brand experiences. My advice is, do it, and be creative. It’s those brands who go the extra mile to create truly joyful customer journeys who will forge stronger connections in the long-run.

As we continue to adapt to the new normal, we can only wonder about what the ‘next normal’ will look like. This period has taught us many lessons about resilience in the face of hardship; reassessing and refocusing on what’s most important to us as people, to our businesses and to our customers. And if I have one hope at this time, it’s that we enter the next normal, whatever that might be, with a reinvigorated sense of purpose.