How brand and community became companies’ secret weapon

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If I had a dollar for every time somebody called 2020 “unprecedented,” I’d have…a lot of dollars. But it’s true, 2020 was unprecedented for countless reasons, and it forced brands to take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves what was working and how they needed to change their strategies. Lots of businesses and brands stumbled to meet this challenge, and we’ve seen many articles and autopsies about why they failed.

But, the stories we don’t hear as often are the ones about businesses that have been able to stay strong amid the chaos, even if they were in industries that took a particularly large hit. That’s why we’re examining some of the greatest brand success stories from 2020 to see what pages we can take out of their playbook to survive “unprecedented” times in the future. So, if you’re looking for the secret ingredient to making brands immune to radical change, or at least better able to weather a storm like 2020, we’ve got it. But it’s really no secret at all…it’s customer loyalty, built off strong brands that deliver great experiences.

Brands that Grew and How They Did It

The more we looked into it, the more undeniable it became – the companies with strong customer loyalties are coming out the end of these trying times in good financial standing and, in some cases, stronger than ever before.

Take AirBnB, for example. Despite being in the travel and hospitality industry, they were able to execute a massive IPO because they had invested in building a loyal customer base and they understood what their community wanted and needed. The fact that they claim 90% of traffic to their site is unpaid reflects that people seek out strong brand experience “organically”, versus racing to the bottom price point that hotels tend to partake in. Even though COVID-19 negatively impacted their industry, AirBnB recognized that those willing to venture out changed the way they viewed booking trips. Instead of making reservations at a traditional hotel, they looked into home visits. And instead of planning far in advance, “travelers” suddenly didn’t have an exact date or destination in mind. Instead, they were just eager to get out of their house in any capacity, and turned to AirBnB to do so, even if it meant just driving south for two hours. And to do this, AirBnB invested efforts into the game of inspiration, and matching people to the perfect home experience for them.

Similarly, Domino’s and Pizza Hut have both done well over the past year despite nothing but headwinds. Many might have expected these two businesses to flounder against competitors like UberEats and Doordash, especially considering that whole “no indoor-dining” issue. However, because both businesses had spent decades generating brand and commercial loyalty in the form of points and promotions for members, loyal customers could choose when they used those savings, which came in clutch during the onset of COVID-19.

Carmax also found new ways to engage customers during the pandemic, including scheduling appointments and driving cars to prospective buyers’ homes for test drives. This is a great example of a company that was able to make a large brand pivot by re-strategizing how they engage their customers. With thousands of people getting laid off and furloughed, not many people would go out of their way to drop thousands of dollars on a brand-new car, but Carmax was able to actively engage with prospective buyers anyways.

These examples show that it pays off for businesses to make solid investments into their brand and community; they’re able to understand their customers’ needs better so they can pivot services and create offerings that enable their base to still buy during economically changing times. It’s a literal and figurative cash reserve for unfavorable times.

What Lessons We Can Learn

Regardless of how much longer we’re dealing with the side effects of the pandemic, the lessons we can learn from these successful brands ring out well into the future. Because for brands and consumers, COVID-19 pulled the future squarely into the present day. 2020 highlighted the importance of brands making long-term investments into customer loyalty and being able to quickly pivot their strategies to create a customer experience that fits the moment…however unfathomable that moment might be.

The brands that persevered over the past year all invested heavily in their respective brands, which ended up paying dividends. One way to accomplish this is by implementing creative automation, which allows organizations to scale content creation with the aid of technology and templates. Using pre-created templates not only helps marketers meet content demands and quickly update assets, but it also helps designers focus on higher-value work. In times of quick change, having the ability to seamlessly generate new marketing assets to swiftly respond to customer needs is crucial, and Carmax’s pivot is a great example. No doubt their new undertakings required super-fast production of content to promote a new offering and educate customers on it. Those big bets paid off, though, for the brands that knew customers would follow them to those new experiences.

Enabling automation at this crucial creation stage lays the foundation for a quick pivot, allowing marketers the agility to bring new ideas to market faster, all because they can make quick changes to their content and still stay within the brand identity framework. This has a natural ripple effect to cost efficiencies: more content output, and more campaigns, while keeping resources constant, which is an especially important operating mode when COVID-19 threw everything upside down. The pandemic also reaffirmed the growing importance of brands being as “consumer-centric” as possible, making it necessary for companies to humanize their marketing and create authentic brand experiences. The customer can always tell if a brand is only taking action to benefit themselves. That’s why marketers should instead look at the unique problems that their customers are facing and make changes accordingly. Many brands are tapping real-time marketing to achieve this, meaning that they’re actively participating in conversations their customers are having around current events and trending topics to show they understand and care. AirBnB, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and Carmax all took a consumer-centric approach to their marketing strategies, and it clearly paid off.

While brand and community have historically been abstract terms, the pandemic ended up highlighting ways where they became undeniably tangible. And it’s clear through these examples that those with the strongest loyalties and tightest knit communities withstood the hit of the pandemic, and in some cases, strengthened these ties. When it really comes down to it, brand and community are all that’s left when, excuse my French, s*** hits the fan.

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