The Essential Brand Strategy Framework: An Update
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The Essential Brand Strategy Framework: An Update

July 29, 2020

In March, we shared a framework to help brands understand and deliver what it takes to be essential. Now, our brand strategy expert weighs in on how things have changed in the wake of COVID-19 and nationwide protests.

Early this year, Kelton teamed up with Salt — a fellow Material company — to conduct a survey of 2,500+ American adults in order to:

  • Uncover what consumers truly want and need from the brands they choose
  • Gather insights on what actually matters to different generations
  • Share strategies with the power to grow and evolve brands

What we found? Five key need states brands must embody to remain essential to customers: 

  • Less: People want brands to eliminate the unnecessary. 
  • Joy: People want brands to create daily moments of joy.
  • Harmony: People want brands to harmonize with their lives. 
  • Prosperity: People want brands to rethink or replenish their resources. 
  • Honesty: People want brands to act with integrity and keep them informed. 

In some cases, these need-states mean different things to different generations — but they hold true for people of every age. 

We presented these findings and our recommendations for brands during an Adweek webinar (and accompanying report) in mid-March — just before COVID-19 forced much of the world to shut down. 

Months later — as we continue to face the effects of our public health, economic, and racial crises — we wanted to check in with Nicole Brandell (Partner, Brand and Marketing Strategy) and get her thoughts on how the current state of the world has impacted the framework she helped develop. 

This framework was developed earlier this year before COVID-19 and before George Floyd’s death. How is it still relevant today? How has it changed?

In a number of ways, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests have been accelerants to many of the themes we identified. We were moving towards a desire to eliminate the unnecessary and focus on what’s really important. When faced with life and death situations, unimportant things fade away because we see how trivial they are. These crises have forced us to reflect and act on what is truly important to our personal health, humanity, and what’s right and wrong. 

How does “Less” show up in a time of COVID-19, when we already have so many restrictions? 

We are seeing a lot of people reevaluate their surroundings, their behaviors, and their lives in general. Being at home — not being able to stick to normal routines and interact with people — has given us the time and space to reflect on what we really think and want. So much of our lives before was driven by external stimulus — work schedules, the boss’s needs, school commitments. As a society, now we’re in daily discovery mode. Figuring out what we really think — not what other people think. What we want, and not what other people want. What is really important to us, not what is important to other people. 

On Instagram today, I saw a post that said, “We’re all learning that how our life feels is much more important than how our life looks.” When you’re stuck inside with a few people for the foreseeable future, you’re forced to reevaluate how you are living your life. You find out pretty quickly what’s meaningful. 

How can brands bring “Joy” to their customers while so much is divided? How can brands come across as authentic vs. unaware or tone deaf?

Never have small moments of surprise and delight been more important. And more than ever, actions speak louder than words. My advice is to be part of the solution — to big societal issues, but also to the everyday doldrums so many of us are experiencing right now. You don’t have to save the world. But every brand needs to do its part to make it better. 

In terms of coming across as authentic, some of our latest research actually focused on this — on what brands should prioritize when creating a communications strategy. It comes down to humanizing your brand, rebuilding trust, and showcasing authority. 

“Prosperity” already had significant differences in generational values (Gen Z interpreted it as environmental sustainability, for example). Are there any other ways you’ve seen “Prosperity” evolve across generational lines due to current events? Physical, psychological, social, global prosperity?

Yes! Older generations are much more acutely aware of their health and the risk of infection, whereas young people are not. Our research has shown that many young people think of themselves as invincible. 

And in the wake of George Floyd’s death, we’re seeing these younger generations shift their efforts towards societal issues — pressing a momentary pause on environmental issues. It is not less important, but the nation’s racial crisis is the more immediate fire. Economic prosperity has also come into focus, highlighting the wealth gap along racial lines.

What are some of the best practices you’ve seen brands implement for each of the five need states in the framework? 

Off the top of my head, here’s what comes to mind:

  • Joy: Early in the pandemic, Disney+ offered families some joyful relief by streaming Frozen 2 several months ahead of its scheduled release. 
  • Harmony: I’d call out Amazon’s $4B investment in at-home Covid tests, PPE equipment, additional compensation, new protocols, and more for its entire supply chain. 
  • Honesty: Any company that made their diversity data public and vowed to change belongs here. 
  • Less: As many women are now working from home, they’re saying no to bras with wires and seams that make them uncomfortable. As a result, companies like Madewell and True and Co. are creating comfortable, wireless/seamless bralettes. It will be interesting to see if women go back to the more traditional options as things return to normal. 
  • Prosperity: GrubHub and others for waiving fees for independent restaurants during nation-wide stay-at-home orders. 

At the end of the report we shared in March, we recommended brands have a balance of all five attributes. Are there any attributes that you think are more important today (compared to when the framework was originally presented)? Are there any attributes that have become more important for specific demographics?

All remain important, and have shifted in interesting ways. However, “Less” feels like it’s becoming increasingly important. 

People are having to make do with less as they lose their jobs and income sources.

People are appreciating small things more. 

People are looking around and seeing a lot that’s unnecessary — and they want to strip it away.

People are focusing on what’s really important.

They want less, but better.

The data from this work originally painted consumers as very skeptical of brands. How do you think that has changed?  

There is an even greater emphasis on brands becoming a partner. With the government and other institutions in turmoil, brands have increasing power to help make lasting societal, educational, and economic change. Brands that have practices that harm are being called out more than ever. Brands that are sticking their head in the sand are also seen as part of the problem. Consumers are expecting brands to be actively anti-problem and pro-solution. They’ll only support and buy those brands, really.

Any other thoughts?

There has never been a better opportunity for brands to show the value they create in people’s daily lives. Because all of our habits have been turned upside down, people are actively reappraising the brands and products they use and buy. This is the time for innovation, new experiences, and new relationships. Figure out how you make people’s lives better today and you will have a customer for life (or at least until the next crisis).

Looking for more? Download the original report here.

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