How to Build a Strong Brand in a Weak Economy

February 27, 2009 by  Filed under: Branding 

Let’s get the bad news over with: To say that the U.S. economy is facing the most challenging economic time since the Great Depression is not an overstatement. Last week, employers shed almost 600,000 jobs. Today, 11.6 million Americans are out of work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate has officially risen to 7.6%.

“This is the largest 13-month job loss since the payroll employment series began in 1939,” Christina Romer, the head of President Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement on February 6, 2009. “These numbers, and the very real suffering of American workers they represent, reinforce the need for bold fiscal action. If we fail to act, we are likely to lose millions more jobs and the unemployment rate could reach double digits.”

So, what’s the good news, you say? Given these data, how do business, political, and nonprofit leaders reignite confidence in their ability to lead? How do they exemplify brand integrity, and any good will their organization may have? Is such a thing even possible, given current levels of consumer confidence and general economic malaise?

It is not only possible to build a strong brand in the current economy; there is untold opportunity to thrive. Using time-honored rules, one can strengthen brand trust and grow share of wallet and voice, even in these difficult times. Two great opportunities to leverage those time-honored rules come to mind: Opportunity #1) Competitors are reducing their marketing spend, and Opportunity #2) Stakeholders are more perceptive during times of uncertainty.

Competitors Are Reducing Marketing and Research Budgets

In 16 years as a marketing practitioner, I have often told clients, “You NEVER stop communicating with your stakeholders when times are difficult.” When confidence is low, customers and employees want their trusted institutions to exude competency, integrity, and a core of humanity. When competitors “go black” to cut costs; savvy marketing practitioners use the opportunity to fill the void with communication that is relevant to the lives of their stakeholders. These days, he who provides comfort, confidence, constancy and consistency wins. Here are a few inexpensive, yet powerful, methods to produce significant rewards:

1) Social networking media. A number of organizations are using Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Twitter to communicate directly with the public. These are great message tools; but they are also great listening tools. Spend some time listening to chatter about your brand. If you’re a small business – generate some positive chatter!

2) Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives. For example, Company XYZ employees can work together mentoring young people, helping a local charity, or providing expertise to a budding young company. These initiatives are not only good for the region, they tell a great story about the soul of the company (even when times are tough).

3) Consumer Advisory Boards. This is a tool that we recently suggested to a client with a limited research budget. We helped them recruit a group of core customers of varying levels of loyalty and satisfaction to help the company with product re-design and message development. Your customers can do a great job of keeping you honest, if you let them.

Customers, Employees, and Shareholders are on High Alert

Whether you lead a small business or a multinational corporation, every message that emanates from your organization (and brand) during this challenging economy takes on additional significance. Your stakeholders are listening to what you say and watching what you do. Consumers are not spending as much; but they are listening to the signals organizations send. Employees are anxious, however they are paying close attention to the moves their leaders make. With every new data point, stakeholders either have increased trust in your brand – or you lose them. This is the time to deeply establish your credentials as a trusted brand. Here are three critical actions to establishing a strong brand in a weak economy:

1) Exude Integrity. This is the most important element of building a trusted brand. Recently, I was conducting an interview for our upcoming Trust in Leadership Series, and an Executive VP of a global hotel company told me that the way his organization has been able to thrive in this economy is that his brand, “Always delivers on its promise. There are no exceptions.” My words to him were, “Of course… What else would you tell me?”

He said something really interesting, “It’s not about what I say to you, it’s about what I do for my customers all over the world.”

He had recently visited one of his high-end hotel chains in a major U.S. city, and was told that a (now former) employee blatantly lied to a longstanding customer about a service offering. That particular corporate customer had held their annual convention at the hotel for many years. They were very profitable, and brought a positive stream of national press every year. He concluded, “The situation was ultimately resolved, but I felt that our integrity was in question. The following weekend, I got in my car and drove across three states to apologize to their board members, and refund a portion of their fees.” His integrity will not be forgotten.

2) Showcase Organizational Capabilities. It’s one thing to talk a good game, it’s another to deliver. Stakeholders want to know that the product works the way it is supposed to, and that your team has the technical knowledge to deliver on the promise. Take this opportunity to increase your organization’s institutional knowledge. Take advantage of high-alert stakeholders’ interest by educating them. Become a trusted source of knowledge, transparency, and information in your industry or sector.

3) Emanate Goodwill. Authentic goodwill, particularly as the public suffers, drives a powerful message across organizational channels and throughout your marketing mix. For example, companies with a long-term investment in sustainability practices are shoring up credentials as brands that “do good while doing well.” Other organizations have taken cost-cutting measures to save the jobs of long-term employees. Even small businesses are getting into the act by contributing their limited time and money to worthy causes.

Leaders of corporate, small business, civic, or government institutions have a unique opportunity to build lasting and strong brand trust, even in an ever-weakening economy. The key is to lead with integrity, highlight your individual and institutional abilities, and let your stakeholders know that your company has a soul. Organizations that show strength of character now will reap the benefits of a strong and trusted brand when times improve.

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