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How Do Brands Successfully Navigate the Culture Wars and Stay Relevant Post COVID-19?

The way brands connect with consumers has changed drastically in 2020.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak It used to be that companies would develop their brand positionings by identifying what they saw as the defining characteristic and benefits of their brand, then pushing that message out the market. They operated as though they were in complete control of their narrative but then as we moved into the age of the consumer things changed and quite drastically. Currently, we live in a world where COVID-19 has now disrupted our society and the USA is experiencing massive social unrest unseen since the 1960's and now many brands are stuck with how they become a part of culture. How do they align their values and mission to reflect what is currently going on culturally in society? The answer is they must really define what they wish their brand to stand for now and in the future and they must get back to the basics of what branding is all about.

The ethos of brand building has always been storytelling, brands today must actively pay more close attention to the culture around them. They must stay in touch with what’s going on in sports, fashion, tech, entertainment, on social media and use the conversations, storyline and awareness to inform them on how they need to best integrate their story into the outside culture. In other words, brands must keep their ears to the streets because the streets are always listening and watching what brands do and what they say. So, brands must become a part of the conversation both on and offline to remain relevant. It is time for more social responsibility from brands. So as we can see via the study by MAGNA and Twitter entitle, “The Impact of Culture,” when it comes to making a purchase decision, being involved in culture is very important to a consumer when evaluating whether or not that should making a decision to make a purchase.

So, therefore, brands today must elevate themselves to a higher position of social authority and take action to make sure they are speaking the right language to the audience they want to influence. Brands must keep a pulse on the culture and now it is more vital than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the current civil unrest going on and social movements taking place. Like it or not, the recent protests over the death of George Floyd have brought on permanent societal change and consumers are now turning to brands, whether it be Nike, Coke, Adidas, Chanel or Gucci for cultural inflection. LGBT consumers want to know if Gucci is speaking about the anniversary of the Stonewall riots on Twitter, African-American consumers want to know what Starbucks is doing to support #BlackLivesMatters, Latin-American consumers want to know what is Sprint doing to make sure they are including Latin X voices as part of their conversation beyond Cinco De Mayo. So, brands must understand these culturall distinctions and many brands are getting it totally wrong right now. Too many brands simply want a pat on the back because they tweeted out a #BlackLivesMatters hashtag with a black fist emoji and think they have done enough to enact change. That's not going to work, pal! Instead, people want real, direct and engaging transparency from brands so make it count, brands must someting that they can really feel, or as Aretha Franklin put it to "Let them know my love is real!" Why? Consumers have more power at their disposal now that they ever have had in any time before to make sure that brands are being held accountable. We are in the prime Age of the Consumer and they control the narrative not the brand.

For example, when we hear news about Amazon cracking down on people protesting and advocating for safer working conditions during the Coronavirus pandemic and we find out people have been fired that can cause a ripple effect among their investors and cause their shares to decline if it’s not addressed internally. It also, deters highly qualified candidates form wanting to work at Amazon and they may choose to work elsewhere. Internally it lowers employee morale and disrupts production which has an impact on a company's bottom-line. So, brands do not want to put themselves in the position of being antithetical to systemic injustice but at the same time drowning out their own employees’ voices when they feel their health is at risk. It is simply hypocritical and there are too many case studies to share spotlight situations like this. For example, Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos made sure there is a “Black Lives Matter” banner at the top of its home page. He also posted on Instagram, an email from a customer criticizing the #BLM banner on Amazon’s home page and said the person who emailed him is the kind of customer he is “happy to lose!" However, with the appointment of Rosalind Brewer, she became only the second African American appointed to Amazon's board of directors. Think about the fact that Amazon has over 804K employees, which is more people that the entire population of Detroit, Michigan and ask yourself does Black lives really matter at Amazon?

Amazon workers  protesting

Moreover, historically, consumers have used many brands as a social identifier, but many consumers these days want and expect more. The successful brands to emerge post- COVID-19 must realize they must engage with culture more directly, brands in effect can become a part of that culture, thereby deepening their relevance and connection with customers. And that has never been more necessary than now. Both brands and culture are shaped by stories and since the birth of capitalism, we have been telling stories to sell ourselves and our brands, too. The motto, "Everyone has a story if you can tell it, then you can sell it and if you can sell it then that is how you know your worth" remains true and reigns supreme. This is important for marketers to understand because it is in this way that culture and brands are interwoven and permanently linked. The best brands are defined by and establish themselves through great stories and storytelling. One of the brands that is better are weaving culture into its brand is Nike.

For example, when former NFL Player, Colin Kaepernick engaged in a silent, peaceful protest, wherein he took a knee to raise awarness about police brutality and inequality against African-Americans he was subsequently and effectively blackballed by the NFL after the 2017 season was over. No to team wanted to sign him not because he still couldn’t perform at a high level either as a starter or even as a second-string player but because they were afraid to jump across American’s fault lines and broach the subject of race in America. They felt by hiring him it was more trouble than he was worth and they could've have been further from the truth. However, Nike was brave enough to entire jump into the fire and have a conversation on America's most taboo subject-- race. But according to Nike founder Phil Knight, that was kind of the point. “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it!" Phil Knight understands that most of Nike's consumers are not afraid to have these conversations.

Flashforward to 2020 and the NFL's acting commissioner Roger Goodell has apologized for trying to undermine its players from peacefully protesting back in 2017 and has stated that he would welcome any team's decisions to hire Colin Kaepernick for a job. When you look at the demographics of the NFL, 70% of its players are Black and their cultural lens is much different than the NFL's fan base which is largely white and Male and an ownership that is 100% non-Black. So, Nike took a huge risk and gambled on the athletes (which has always been the core of its brand positioning) and it paid off. Now, the NFL admits its previous mistakes and welcomes Colin's presence back in the NFL either as a player or in some active role to help bring about systemic change. That is just one example of a brand having the courage to be on the right side of history despite opposition.

The trouble is, to tap into culture is not easy- and to avoid coming off as corny or disingenuous a brand cannot be passive as spectator. You must tap in with communications and influencers that are driving culture and building social tribes. The trick is two-fold: you need to be aware of what’s happening in the culture, but you also have to be mindful of what aspects of that culture your brand—with its unique beliefs and morals—should most logically associate itself with. In other words, if you are going to try and tap into the culture of the moment, you must do so authentically, tastefully and serve as almost a cultural barometer. Nike has showed that they are leaps and bounds ahead of the curve, so more brands need to think like Nike and "Just Do It!"

So, what can brand to in order to be culturally relevant?

It is not quick and easy. Marketers cannot just sit back at their desks and monitor Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Companies cannot just hire an influencer and create a video with images related to hot-topic issues. Brands must connect with people on a more fundamental level, on a real level, understanding what motivates them, and what upsets them and then finding the best way to navigate through the feedback. To be authentic in our engagement with culture, brand must invest in the culture by putting your customers first and in the center of your branding. You might also hire people that look like the demographic you are targeting in order to have more organic conversations. If you know that a lion’s share of your customers are Asian-American women then hire Asian-American women to better serve the needs of your consumers. This is what the best brands do. These are the brands that stick around, remain relevant, and make an impact on the culture they are participating in. They work hard to understand the culture they want to influence. This is why Nike will always be around and why many brands will not survive post-COVID-19. Brands needs to get in tune or get left behind because these cultural wars are only heating up and COVID-19 has disrupted the very way we do business forever.

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