The ‘Post Pandemic’ Brand
You’re not essential. Now what?
(4 minute read + a listening suggestion below)
For people who work in the consumer brand space, 2020 sparked a unique existential crisis. Our society quickly pivoted to viewing everything through a lens of essential and nonessential, and a lot of us became aware of just how nonessential our professional contributions to mankind are.
There’s some good news though: People still need stuff. In fact, they still want stuff, and someone has to make it. Maybe the past year has you re-thinking literally everything. For those who still feel called to create the products all of us use in our daily lives, these are some ideas to move into the future without looking out-of-touch:
Make really cool shit. It might be counterintuitive to make ‘product’ the first priority in a world where we all feel like we should be doing more, but it’s important (critical even) to remember that your product is why you exist. If you’re not putting most of your energy into making it the best damn ‘thing’ possible, then there is no reason for you to be here. Seriously stop. Someone else will make something better. ‘Cool’ doesn’t mean expensive. Know what you’re making and who you’re making it for then relentlessly work toward making it as innovative, functional, beautiful, and memorable as it can be.
Stop exaggerating your brand’s impact on society/the planet. In the wake of the direct-to-consumer boom, when it’s no longer enough to simply ‘cut out middlemen’, brands now view themselves as agents of change. We reimagined everything from t-shirts to suitcases to mattresses, but shoppers are starting to catch on to the inconvenient truth that almost all of these items look curiously similar to their pre-reimagined counterparts. Read the ‘about’ page of any brand founded in the last five years (especially those funded by VCs/PEs), and you might think you’ve stumbled onto the site of a non-profit.
Trying to rise above consumerism might feel noble, but unfortunately, it’s also at least a little dishonest. Get comfortable with the idea that you are in business to turn a profit and don’t feel bad about it. If your brand is able to have a positive impact on society, fantastic. Just don’t pretend you’re doing more than you are. People will notice.
Before you ‘change the world’, change the lives of people who work for you. Both the scrappiest ‘boot-strappers’ and Wharton MBAs tend to get into retail for the same two reasons: First, they think they can make some money and second, they think it will be fun. Starting a brand sounds sexy.
The thing is — making money via selling a product is almost always harder than people think it will be. Even when things are going well, there is almost always pressure to grow, to be profitable, to keep expenses low (again, particularly when VCs/PEs enter the picture). It’s become commonplace for employees to accept less pay as a tradeoff for working at a ‘cool brand’.
But, in 2020, as companies were pushed to release statements on Covid policies and systemic racism, a lot of businesses had to face the reality that their problems had a lot less to do with their public image and more to do with disillusioned employees. Despite their carefully-crafted messaging, even the coolest brands learned how marginalized and unhappy people within their own companies were.
Creating a great workplace is far from easy. I’ll go as far to say: It’s really hard. Still, even as the word “community” has been bastardized by the Internet, work remains a place where humans can be a part of a real community, where they have real relationships with real people. Brands have a lot to gain by putting their employees ahead of their public image. Even when cash is tight, (1) narrowing the income gap and distance between executives and entry level team members and (2) acknowledging people for their ideas and contributions might be enough to completely change the dynamic. A lot of people just want some credit.
CEOs like to think big. It’s easy to fall prey to the idea that your brand can change the world. But, before you try to change the world, check in with the people around you first. Maybe even try to have some fun.
Transparency is great. Performative transparency is annoying. This is not targeted toward Everlane. Yes, they coined the phrase “radical transparency”, which is all too easy to make fun of, but this extends beyond them. The age-old saying comes to mind: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Consumers are getting smarter. We’ve all made enough disappointing online purchases and had to go through the dreaded process of online returns to make us skeptical of any brand that looks to be promising too much.
When it comes to the transparency of how things are made, the best policy might simply be: Do the right thing. If you ever feel like you have to cover up or hide the way you make something, figure out another way to do it. And, even when you genuinely make an effort to do everything the right way, wait a minute before you tell the world.
Find ways to circumnavigate social media. Social media might be the worst. As much as we love to hate it, we just can’t quit. We tell ourselves that if we were the type of professional who didn’t have to use it ‘for work’, that we’d delete the apps tomorrow. Whether that’s true or not, Instagram fatigue is setting in all around us. Instagram & Facebook are likely still very productive when it comes to targeting new and existing customers, but you’d be crazy to not start thinking how you’d communicate with your audience if you couldn’t rely on these networks. I don’t have all the answers, but there are brands out there who are already less dependent on social media to sustain their business. Rapha comes to mind.
Back to the beginning: Make really cool shit. What’s more memorable than a cool brand video? A product that people actually love. Customers might forget your cutting-edge content, but if they truly love what they bought from you, they won’t forget it and they’ll be back.
Beyond product, the most obvious place to turn is e-mail/newsletters. Try to think of what kind of thing you’d want to find in your own inbox. I’m here for a brand that exposes me to fun new things and ideas, and in effect, saves me from having to scroll through Instagram. Give me a good playlist, send me a thought-provoking article, maybe even tell me about another brand making something awesome that isn’t competing with yours. This concept might be more applicable to brands perceived as ‘elevated’, but I do think there’s an opportunity for companies to act as editors/aggregators, to create some interesting streams of information dedicated to their niche ‘community’, not as a substitute for news, but as a place for people to discover delightful recommendations and strengthen the positive association they feel toward your brand.
It’s possible to ‘do good’ and not shout about it. As a follow up to ‘not exaggerating impact’, it’s great when businesses are able to give back in some way. If you’ve succeeded at making an awesome product and you’ve created an environment where people are happy to work and you’ve still got some time, money, and energy to spare, by all means, do some good.
Whether or not the recipients of your virtuous efforts are somehow related to the endeavors of your day to day business, ask yourself if it’s something your customers need to know about. The more it becomes about talking about giving back, the greater the chance of your contribution looking contrived.
A crazier idea: Have a life outside of work. Ask yourself what you care about enough to try to make a difference even if you never get credit.
Have a sense of humor. Above I said: “Maybe even try to have some fun.” The past year was wild enough that it sometimes feels like we aren’t allowed to laugh anymore. Yes, we’re living in a society with some very real flaws and some actual threats to our existence. But, if you can’t find the humor in this weird era we’re living in, it might be time to get out of retail and start doing something ‘more essential’.
Until then, it’s okay to make things that people don’t need. It’s not okay to make things that no one wants.
Take a virtual trip to Charleston’s best wine bar. Femi Oyediran is one of the city’s leading sommeliers and along with his friend, Miles, co-owns Graft. But, Femi will tell anyone that his first love is music. Instantly trick your partner or friends into thinking your taste in music is better than it is by following him on Spotify. With names like ‘Give It Air’ and ‘Ice Buckets’, even the $20 bottle you picked up at Whole Foods will taste better. Still, support your local wine shop if you can and visit Graft next time you’re in Charleston.
Have a great weekend, A
well said about brands providing value add content! great chance to add small doses of value