How can marketers help ensure their company’s resilience in these difficult times? Omar Merlo, academic director of the MSc Strategic Marketing programme at Imperial College Business School, explains that there are four main ways marketers can act.
In the digital era, brands are subjected to increased scrutiny. Online reviews, social media, and intensified competition means things can go wrong quickly, with any issues drastically amplified.
In this context, building brand resilience is essential; even more so after the events of the previous year, and in the likely forthcoming recession.
Nonetheless, this is an ongoing challenge for brands. Credit built up in good times can help them to endure the bad, from PR gaffes to global pandemics.
Customer participation key to brand resilience
Brand resilience may be built through strong customer relationships. These can be cultivated over time, through strong customer-brand connections and distinctive brand value propositions.
Brands can also strengthen customer relationships and build up resilience through customer participation and brand transparency, strategies which my Imperial colleague Andreas Eisingerich and I (alongside others) have researched.
Increased scrutiny may make some unwilling to invite customer opinions. Brands should resist this temptation, doing exactly the opposite.
We find that brands which invite feedback, reviews, suggestions, and even complaints, develop strong customer relationships. This has tangible results, including brand loyalty and improved sales.
Brands that go further, openly sharing positive and negative customer comments and feedback, gain even more. Transparency, we found, can increase purchase intention and willingness to pay.
We’ve even come across reports of developers building minor bugs into software, which they then fix publicly as customers report them, showing engagement, responsiveness, and transparency. This approach is a little extreme, and not something we would encourage, but reflects organisations’ increasing awareness of the benefits of customer participation and transparency.
Conversely, organisations that merely pay lip service to customer engagement, treating it as an unwelcome chore, will not enjoy the benefits.
We find customer participation drives a greater sales uplift than the much-coveted word of mouth, which arguably prioritises new over loyal customers. Ultimately, the latter is perhaps best left to grow organically. Customer participation can be a more active process.
Honesty can be the best policy
Brands that have responded well during the pandemic, with transparency and integrity, will have built up goodwill among customers. Others, seen to have been evasive and greedy (certain budget airlines may fit the bill), will see their resilience tested.
Credit can be built up during good times, but brands can also show off what they’re made of during difficult ones.
While brands may be unwilling to show weakness, admitting the last year has been difficult may resonate with customers, who have also had difficult years. Many praised the way (the now late) Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson handled his honest but contrite admission that he would have to lay off staff.
Trying to sweep issues under the carpet will weaken customer relations, eroding trust. It’s worth noting that, as with everything else in this piece, the pandemic has merely amplified ever-present realities related to transparency.
As a cautionary note, we must add that customer participation must not be allowed to negatively impact employee relations. Employees’ well-being, participation, and protection from customer negativity all contribute to brand performance. A balance should be sought between internal and external participation.
How to build brand immunity
Building strong customer relationships can help confer brand immunity, protecting brands from negative information that might otherwise be fatal. Remember Volkswagen’s emission scandal in 2015? Somewhat surprisingly, the company bounced back in 2016 to become the world’s top-selling car manufacturer, only being overtaken in 2020 by Toyota (which itself recalled 8 million defective vehicles in 2008).
Here at Imperial College we are exploring ways in which brands can actively prime immunity to negative information. We find that brands can do this by stimulating specific psychological processes among customers.
For example, we found that merely asking customers how they would feel about a brand if it were affected by hypothetical negative information can boost future brand immunity. This suggests that, besides building strong relationships over time, there may be more immediate ways to build brand defence mechanisms, at a time when these are most needed. This is a very promising and timely research area.
Developing marketing talent to navigate difficult times
Companies must look to develop their marketing talent through utilising programmes that offer engagement, brand strategies, and building brand resilience across multiple modules and perspectives.
As well as academic researchers, provisions should come from those with frontline experience. The crisis management module in the Imperial MSc Strategic Marketing online programme, for example, is taught by a colleague who led American Airlines’ brand recovery strategy after the 9/11 attacks and other brand crises.
To anyone wondering whether this is a good time to enrol in an MSc in marketing, the answer is unequivocally yes. The skills to generate and analyse market intelligence, and develop customer-centric strategies, will be essential to brands’ survival in the near future.
Customer-centricity will be more pivotal than ever in the post Covid-19 world. Brands must strive to hold a distinctive and relevant place in consumers’ minds (no, not all publicity is good publicity). This must be married to a narrative, a positive story that connects prospective consumers with the brand.
Brands should not sacrifice marketing budgets post-Covid, and they need to find ways to adapt. Those who prosper will be those who manage to invest strategically. And highly-skilled marketing talent may be the best investment of them all.
Written by Dr Omar Merlo, Academic Director of the MSc Strategic Marketing programme at Imperial College Business School, and Academic Co-Director of the Virtual Strategic Brand Transformation Executive Education Programme.