How to lead brands through ‘the steepest learning curve of our professional lives’

Craig Mawdsley / April 2020

Craig Mawdsley, joint chief strategy officer at AMV BBDO, shares his take on leading brands through this unique moment in history.

Working in branding and marketing right now is an extraordinary privilege.

However, it may not feel like one in this current moment. It may feel uncertain, unsettling, upsetting. The marketing playbook is gone. Brand strategies for the coronavirus situation are being written (and rewritten) on the fly. Budgets have been frozen or cut. Jobs are at risk.

But this is a unique period in world history — the steepest learning curve of all our professional lives. Those who embrace it will emerge as better professionals and maybe even better people.

Don’t be self-serving; don’t be cynical; and don’t talk like an organisation. Do the right thing, and keep doing it when this ends.

All that’s for the future, though. Because right now, brand leaders — whether agency or client side — have decisions to make. Every few minutes a new email arrives with a report on ‘What matters now’ or ‘How your consumers are feeling.’ It’s impossible to read them all and still function. Don’t even bother. I’ve read them for you, and here are the branding lessons I’ve learned.

Keep investing in marketing (even if not right now)

In a normal recession, the smart move is to spend through it. Hold your nerve, see if your competitors fold, and hope your brand emerges stronger. That’s still true, but it’s not the full picture of our current predicament. We’re in a public health crisis with both supply-side and demand-side effects.

In a normal recession, stimulated demand can be easily satisfied. There are usually loads of latent capacity in labour and raw materials. That’s not the case now. Some brands in strong demand are struggling to keep up, whether because their workers are sick, the labour market has been impacted, or physical availability has been restricted or shut down by the government.

It’s OK to scale down marketing to manage these changes. But when the restrictions are lifted (or if you’re one of the lucky brands without restrictions), you should be fighting with your finance department to get the funds to hit the ground running.

Make human decisions about your brand marketing strategy

Many marketers are frozen in the headlights right now. Perhaps it’s years of over analysing creative output. Or maybe they don’t have a good grasp on what their brand’s role really is. That’s OK. Good decisions come from humanity. Let human instinct guide you in this moment.

The data tells us people are looking for two things right now: help and comfort. If you’re able to help them to navigate the current situation, tell them about that. But they also want joyful distractions — things to make them smile in times of hardship. Of course, you need to get the tone right, but as long as you’re thinking like an empathetic human being, you won’t go far wrong. Don’t be self-serving; don’t be cynical; and don’t talk like an organisation. Do the right thing, and keep doing it when the coronavirus situation ends.

Think like a caring human being with the resources to help millions. Then act accordingly, in the mutual interest of business and society.

The data also tells us that what people most want after this is to see those they are closest to. And what are they most afraid of? Poverty and unemployment. How might your brand help with those things?

Strategically plan now to prepare for a cautious, staggered recovery

Now is the time for planning. It might be sensible to turn off your brand marketing for a little while, but it’s not very sensible to turn off your strategic planning. Make sure your agencies are part of this process too.

Things are changing all the time, but there seems to be a growing consensus that we won’t just flick a switch and return to the way things were. Some of the restrictions will be lifted, but not all. People will be wary of packed commuter trains and big crowds. We might return to lockdown as the virus flares up and we don’t have a vaccine. You need flexible and scalable plans that can be turned on and off with a tone of voice to fit more cautious consumers.

It’s OK to feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing. If you didn’t feel that way, you’d be truly terrible at your job. Feeling uncertain, in uncertain times, means you have the emotional intelligence to thrive in the future. But don’t let the uncertainty paralyse you. Think like a caring human being with the resources to help millions. Then act accordingly, in the mutual interest of business and society.

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