Brave brands: why on earth would you build a brand in the middle of this shit storm?

Brave is as brave does

There’s a damning idiom that swims in the British culture of understatement: “that’s a very brave decision”. It’s an insidious sentiment because it’s trying to rewrite our mental maps around the idea of being brave. It says: brave equals stupid. It’s a jealous, cowardly meme in our culture, which wants everyone to be as afraid as each other and do nothing about it. For everyone to cower and accept being less.

It takes a special kind of bravery to start a company in a recession. You can read all the advice you like – that this is when great companies are formed and when weaker ones die and make way for them. When the odds are against you and stats make it clear you’ll probably fail, it takes bravery to do it anyway. 

This isn’t an agency CEO shouting at brands from the sidelines. Brilliant Noise has lived through the risks of starting a company and was built in the throes of the last recession. The week the three founders signed off on our first formal business plan, The Economist had a less than encouraging front page image: a hot air balloon in the colours of the Union Flag, drifting into an ominous storm cloud. It was a scary time to put your reputation and your capital on the line, but it was definitely the right time to do so. 

Doing something brave isn’t the act of a special person, of someone slightly deranged or deluded. Not always. These are brave acts by entrepreneurs who are very, very human. Taking a risk, being prepared to be the one that falls on their face but maybe, maybe, maybe will succeed, is about the most human thing you can do. 

Our favourite stories are about people who are small and get to do something big. The Hobbit. Harry Potter. Paddington. They are reluctant heroes. They are heroes because they are afraid and they do it anyway. Fear is no reason not to act. Brave is not about being fearless, but accepting the dangers and acting despite them.

Making a big bet on building a brand in the middle of a crisis, as we consider an economic downturn that’s getting ready to shred our markets for a few months at least, is brave. Only 7% of brands are doing that in the UK right now, according to Marketing Week. So 93% of brands are keeping their heads down. That’s a lot of open space for brave players to exploit.  

No one will get fired for not taking a risk now. But they could lose more share of voice or awareness than a brave competitor. They could miss the rise of a completely new player.  

Why build brands in uncertain times?

Why are so many talking about building brands in a downturn? It’s too easy to say, well agencies are always going to say that, or marketing directors are always going to want to protect their budgets. 

The P&G classic answer

P&G builds brands in recessions because it pays off, sometimes during and always after. Media is cheap and consumers still have attention.

Brave means not clichéd, even “in uncertain times”

Sitting through an ad break on TV can feel awkward for a marketer these days. While there is good work going out, much of it feels apologetic or just the same saccharine message. Many US TV spots are so similar that one creative edited tens of them together to form a single, slightly dystopian-feeling spot with “uncertain times”, “we’re here for you” and “home” making you feel a little like you’re living in an outtake from John Carpenter’s anti-consumerist classic, They Walk Among Us.  

The “air cover” effect

In a recent podcast, marketing professor Scott Galloway talked about how companies will use the Covid-19 crisis as “air cover” to do things that might be unpopular or difficult in normal times. In finance terms this can mean suspending dividends, restructuring, and other manoeuvres. 

The negative side of this for marketers is that politically, anyone with a grudge against marketing as a team or a function may take this as the time to cut. Powerful CFOs who see marketing as just too fluffy may gain power and momentum to cut or remake things in the middle of the crisis. 

On the positive side, things that were difficult or slow to get done because of politics or risk before the crisis might just have a chance of getting a green light now. Heinz’s move into direct-to-consumer (D2C) may have been something that was hard to get going when major customers like the supermarket might raise objections about cannibalising market share. Yet in the midst of lockdown, the company has been brave enough to give it a go – and a basic website built on Shopify is out there. The supermarkets have bigger issues to deal with right now. Even if Heinz has to walk the project back later on, stakeholders will be quicker to forgive or forget once we emerge from the crisis. It doesn’t matter if people don’t want beans direct forever. Heinz is generous, radical and fast. Similarly, Universal Pictures has pushed ahead with the biggest direct-to-streaming release of a franchise movie ever: Trolls World Tour. 

Universal Pictures launched ‘Trolls World Tour’ without a cinema release – a bold and necessary move.

Winning the argument with the CFO

Most likely you, dear reader, are a marketer or communicator of some species. Perhaps you’ve been persuaded of the urgent need to double-down on brand in a crisis, or had your existing version of this view strengthened. That doesn’t mean you will be able to defend your brand building activity through the budget reviews and clawbacks that may come in the next weeks and months. Let’s talk tactics. Let’s talk about the realpolitik of helping non-marketers in the C-suite understand that a marketing euro, pound or dollar cut today, is a point off the share price next year – a gap in the market leaving the company exposed to new threats. 

Don’t use marketing metrics to make your case

We marketers are obsessed with measurement. And it can blind us to the lack of interest our colleagues in the rest of the organisation have in reach, preference, sentiment and other data that we find fascinating and invaluable. 

If you’re going to use data, use ROI, sales and savings. At a pinch the opportunity cost of not investing might get some boardroom traction. 

Don’t rely on rational decision-making

The biggest lie humans have told themselves since the enlightenment is that we are rational beings, raised above the animal kingdom by dint of being able to weigh facts and pros and cons and arrive at the best decision. In fact, most consumers and most executives alike make decisions in their gut and then wrangle a rationale from the available evidence. 

You need good data, sure, but to win the boardroom argument for continued brand investment, you need to recognise the role that fear and excitement play. Fear should be invoked by informed guesses about competitors’ more ambitious plays and gaps in the market that will encourage new threats. Excitement will come from examples of what winners did in the last downturns, and the incredible boldness of brands like Heinz in ripping up the rule book and going full D2C, despite the likely ruffled feathers of major retailers. 

Marketing knows the customer best

After looking at costs and supply chains and grim economic forecasts all day long, the actual consumer and what they want now and tomorrow is likely to have drifted from CEO and CFO minds.

Personas and data points from research or social listening will help C-suite colleagues understand the opportunities of investing in brand and the risks of not. Personalise data if you can. Show real customers, real tweets or emails to bring the data to life and remind everyone that marketing is closest to the people who decide to buy your products or not. You know them best. Make sure they are heard. And as the IPA’s full page ad in the FT put it – the best time for brands to be heard is while it’s quiet.