A brand's voice in disruptive times: a Slingshot POV

January 26, 2021

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Nothing challenges a brand like uncertainty. Most brands are built to thrive in normal conditions. But what happens when unforeseen forces come along to disrupt the norms?

If there’s anything that’s come to define the past year, it’s disruption. And while there’s certainly hope for smoother sailing as we move into 2021, recent times have taught us that the only thing we can always expect is the unexpected.

COVID-19. Volatility in the economy. Social and political division. Rising tensions around the world. Any of these factors can disrupt a brand’s ability to connect with customers. The question most brands grapple with is in figuring out where they fit in. When should they go dark? When should they take a stand? Should they take a stand at all?

Below are some considerations we believe can help answer that question, along with some best practices based on the direction your brand decides to take.

In uncertain times, consistency is a precious commodity

By early summer of 2020, COVID fatigue was hitting consumers in big way. After months of “we’re all in this together” messaging, many brands discovered that what people really wanted from them was just a little taste of normalcy.

For many brands, the natural reaction to uncertainty is inaction. They stand still, go dark, and hope to just ride it out. We believe that’s the wrong move. Why? Because the more unstable life becomes, the more stability people seek. And that’s a need great brands have the power to fulfill.

In fluid situations, the right approach can change from one moment to the next. In April of 2020, it was important for brands to clearly articulate how they were tackling COVID safety. By June, however, most people were more concerned with how brands could make them feel normal again. It’s up to brands to continually check the pulse of consumers and be ready to respond with messaging that’s right for the moment.

Let this be your default stance. Because often, the right voice in periods of disruption is the one you’ve always used.

To speak or not to speak

We’ve all watched brands and their leaders wade into social or political hot water. Some brands are wired for this. Who, for example, is shocked when Ben & Jerry’s supports a progressive cause? Activism is at the core of the brand itself and is something CEO Matthew McCarthy believes more brands should embrace. But imagine if Blue Bell Ice Cream suddenly became as politically active. The reaction in the marketplace would likely be quite different.

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In addition, brands also need to be on the lookout for instances where advertising of any form might seem insensitive or out of touch. And those times can pop up quite out of nowhere. January 6, 2021 was just such a moment, when the best move for most brands on social media was to not be there at all.

So before you lead your brand down a similar path, we suggest considering these questions:

  • What is your goal for speaking out? There needs to be something your brand or company expects to accomplish, something bigger than short-term sales objectives. Make sure participation aligns with your long-term goals as a company.
  • Is doing so a genuine reflection of your core brand values? If your company does choose to participate, make sure that doing so aligns with what your brand truly stands for. Know that planting a flag will attract some people, but it could repel others. Chiming in just to capture a moment in the spotlight will only ring hollow and come back to haunt you.
  • Does your company normally participate in such conversations? If not, is this something you’re willing to do on a consistent, ongoing basis?
  • Does doing so reflect the views and values of your people? Companies are not monoliths. But sometimes, brand messages of a social or political nature are less about the company and more about the leadership at the top. In other words, do your people feel the same way? Internal buy-in is essential to avoid any operational or cultural disruptions.
  • Are you prepared to accept any backlash? Because you’re likely going to get it. No matter how noble the cause, no matter how honorable your intentions, someone out there is bound to react negatively. And that can include employees as well.

What to do when preparing to speak out

Every brand has its own reasons for whether or not to lend its voice to an issue or cause. So if you do decide to get involved or participate in cultural conversations, and it makes sense for your brand, you need to ensure that you’re prepared. Here’s how:

  • Re-asses your social media policies and update them if needed. Make sure your social media content strategy is informed by the latest data regarding social media engagement, the best times to post content, etc.
  • Audit your owned media for problematic language. This is especially true for the website. It’s critical to ensure that your more evergreen brand language is consistent with any messaging you’re about to put out. Anything that could be taken out of context should be addressed ahead of time.
  • Assess community management capacities. Make sure your community management capacity is sufficient to handle the comments your social posts on these topics might receive (positive or negative). Use social listening tools to measure brand sentiment before and after you share your messaging.
  • Tailor messaging to specific channels and the audiences who use them. As with any other messaging, it pays to understand the values of your different segments so that your message connects with them on a personal level. The more you know where they’re coming from, the better they’ll understand where you're coming from.
  • Don’t deviate from your established brand voice. Your brand is still a brand, after all. Consistency of voice is one of its greatest assets.
  • Don’t rely on copy alone. Feature visuals and graphics to communicate the special nature of your message and how it is a break from your “regularly scheduled programming” (or standard operating procedures).
  • Show a commitment to listening. Communicate to your fans and followers that you do want to hear from them.
  • And finally, have a crisis communications plan. Because if it's worth doing, it's worth planning for.

Does this mean that all brands should look for ways to take strong political or cultural stances, choose up sides and shout their opinions from the rooftop? Not at all.

What it does mean is you need the right plan in place for your brand to provide the sort of voice people long for in an unstable world. But doing so demands action. It demands clarity. In short, it demands leadership, which is something any brand can provide to employees, to customers, to everyone. Because in the end, the more leadership a brand shows in uncertain times, the more leadership it will enjoy where it matters most of all: in the marketplace.

Topics:marketingCOVID-19crisis communications