Branding in an upside down world

Hartford. Week 6.


We woke Sunday morning to a blanket of snow on the ground. It’s well into April. My wife blinked and said, “It’s an upside down world.”


No one has to wonder what she meant. A spreading disease has turned one set of norms into another. Rather than engage people, as we’ve been urged to do all our lives, we now have to stay away from each other. Rather than fear the seasonal flu, we now hope that’s all we have. Instead of being wary of a masked face, we now shrink from an uncovered mouth.


And what about brands? Has brand marketing changed? For weeks my fellow brand strategists have been sending out messages. They advise, with professed caring and unsolicited wisdom, what brands must do during this crisis.


But “brands” don’t really “do” anything. People and organizations do things—and it’s not just a semantic point. A brand is not an actor. It’s the result of actions. A brand doesn’t adapt or help or express empathy—only people do that. A brand is a reflection of human agency—even in an upside down world.


Through it all, we people must still be cognizant of up and down. We’re pilots flying in a cloudbank—we have to know where the horizon is. We may need avionic technology for help, but we have to know.


So where is up and where is down in the age of pandemic? Where is the horizon? I’m a brand strategist, not a jet pilot. But here are three thoughts as I try to avoid people on another chilly day in April:


1) It’s not the time to plumb your emotional depths and pour out your heart in honest expression. You may be isolated, but this crisis is not about you and your feelings. Look outward. Be cooperative. Shut up if you have to and try to be constructive.


2) Forget about “innovation”—which sounds like execu-speak for normal times. An upside down world calls for experimenting on the fly. Don’t ask consultants about your broken supply chain. Ask a truck driver. Bypass the Excel icon—and get a pad and pencil. Don’t think of harnessing technology for “transformative change.” See how it can help your organization survive day by day.


3) Finally, stop obsessing over your brand. Your brand lives on no matter what. It’s a reflection of who you are as a person and what you do as an organization. If you stay honest and productive in this upside down world—your brand will benefit. And when the world flips over again, you’ll know where the horizon is and how to fly out of the cloud.