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Post-pandemic positioning (and how to manage it)

Positioning; the art of finding your unique place in the market or ecosystem you operate in, is something that requires constant adjustment as those around you respond and adapt. Never is this truer than in a crisis – when reputations can be created or destroyed, and the way your brand is perceived, changed forever.

We’ve seen some companies shut down, some thrive and some even pivot and start doing something entirely different during this pandemic. Are they just reacting, or is there a strategy guiding their response?

Some of it comes down to the individuals at the helm, but many organisations have principles in place for times fraught with such difficult decisions. A ‘Mission’, ‘Purpose’ or ‘Values’ are never so valuable as in times of trouble and uncertainty. They help guide leaders, as they ask the big questions.

The big questions

If you’re lucky enough to have guiding principles already in place, now’s the time to return to them; examine what they really mean and be true to them. Use them as a source of guidance, inspiration and to ask searching questions about how you should respond.

Let’s consider two such questions that may shape your reputation for the foreseeable future. If you have a stated mission, purpose or values, use them to help you consider your answers. If you don’t, perhaps answering them will help you decide what your values are…

Question 1: How did you react?

People’s memories of this time will last. How will they remember your reaction to the crisis?  How will they view your actions? Is there an opportunity to manage those perceptions?

However well-considered your response to a crisis, there’s always that moment of first impression – before strategy really takes hold. Criticism will inevitably be levelled not just at political leaders for their handling of the crisis, but at business leaders too. Whether for not acting quickly enough, for knee-jerk responses like suspending pay, or going cap-in-hand for government bailouts, without fully considering alternatives.

Do unto others…

The phrase “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” perhaps has another facet in times like these: ‘do unto others as you would be judged for doing’.

This may sound dramatic, but consider some of the more high-profile responses that have grabbed the headlines. Mike Ashley for example, already had a somewhat polarising reputation, before Tweeting his opinion that Sports Direct staff are essential key workers, and attempting to keep his staff coming into work against government guidance. You’ll no doubt have seen Richard Branson and other high profile business leaders and brands come under similar public scrutiny for their actions – from pay-cuts and lay-offs, to failing to pay suppliers in impoverished nations.

Of course as leaders, our first loyalty is to our own teams, but to manage our brand reputation effectively, we must also think long term – potentially collaborating with partners, suppliers and even competitors to protect people, our business community and the global economy from the impact of the pandemic.

‘Integrity’ and ‘Caring’ are two of the most common values stated by brands.  If one of them is one of yours, what does it tell you about how you should treat your staff or suppliers during this period?

Question 2: How did you help?

Memories of how you reacted and how you treated people will live on in how people feel about you and your brand. An even more tangible legacy will be what you did to help.

Start close to home. What do your customers need from you? You probably need to keep selling in order to survive and protect jobs, but the worst thing you can do for your reputation is appear to profiteer. That doesn’t mean stop selling, it just means you need to reflect on what your customers really need, and consider adjusting what you’re offering to them. Are big, long-term projects or capital investments what they’re really interested in right now? Or can you offer them something more short-term to help them through the crisis?

If you do alter your offer, make sure you consider what it means for your positioning as you emerge from lockdown. Will it appear innovative, agile and helpful, or will it look opportunistic in hindsight? Again, control the narrative.

Helping others

We’re all in this together – never has this been more true – so next look beyond your usual customer base to consider who else you can help in these exceptional times.  Don’t get stuck in the constraints of what you normally do – these aren’t normal times.  Are there new needs that your products or services can answer?  Good business after all, is simply identifying new needs and meeting them.

What do you uniquely have to offer?

We don’t all have the tools or expertise of course, to directly help the front-line. Whilst McLaren stopped working on their F1 cars to help make ventilators, and several firms, such as HP,  dedicated their 3D printers to make visors and other frontline essentials, some of us have had to settle for a more modest or indirect contribution to the fight.

As the pressures on the front line begin to lessen, where else can you add value? With attention starting to turn to getting back to work and rebuilding the economy, do you have solutions for your own business that could be applied elsewhere? Whether physical solutions to organising and setting up the workspace, or digital tools to better enable socially-distanced working. Rather than jealously guarding your ideas, could you share insight, ideas and services with others, to help your extended business community get back on its feet faster? Doing so could also be great for your own reputation and profile.

No one’s suggesting you become a charity or give away all your competitive advantages for free, but weigh this against the reputational and wider value of sharing innovative ideas for getting back to business faster.

Your contribution will be remembered

Why is all this important?  In the years after the war, it was common to ask what someone did during the conflict – in what capacity they served and where. There was an assumption that everyone pitched in, in some meaningful way. It may not quite such a marked theme in the post-Covid era, but there’s likely be an expectation that those with any power and influence, including business leaders, did something to contribute. Consider what you’ll about what you did during Covid-19, and how it will be received.

‘Innovation’ and ‘adaptability’ are also amongst the most common brand values. If ever there were a time to prove it or explore what they really mean – this is it.

Be guided by your principles

The CEO of a large food & drink organisation recently said in a workshop:

“We’ve spent years investing in our brand and our values – now is the time draw down on them”.

Do you have a mission, purpose or values you can draw upon?  How could they be interpreted to inform and inspire your actions as we emerge from Covid-19? If you don’t, perhaps the way you respond now will tell you what your values should be, for future reference.

If you’ve never gone through the process of developing a Purpose or Values, now may seem like an odd time to do so. But such is the breadth of decision-making they can help with, it may be a wise investment of a few hours of your time. There are countless resources online to help you, or recruit the assistance of a brand consultancy to help – you may find the outputs inspire actions that will help guide you and protect your brand reputation.

Summary

In summary then, here’s 7 tips you can start thinking about and acting on now:

  • First impressions last: be mindful of knee-jerk reactions to new developments
  • Treat others well: it will be noticed and remembered long after the crisis. Your people and your business’s culture will help you bounce back – look after them and invest in them if you can.
  • Control the narrative: doing the right thing can still harm you if widely misconstrued.
  • Be honest: don’t pretend to know all the answers or the severity of the situation – no one does!
  • Help: Help your customers. Explore ways to offer new kinds of help to new customers. Help your staff. Help your suppliers, Help your community.
  • It’s not business as usual: if your usual offer is less in demand or less relevant, pivot. Offer something different – don’t stubbornly occupy a market position that’s irrelevant or unviable in this changed marketplace.
  • Follow your principles: now’s the time to double-down on your mission, purpose and values. If you’ve never articulated them, consider doing so now – there’ll never be a more relevant time.

Let us know how you’re managing your reputation through your response to the crisis by emailing hello@nexusleeds.co.uk or finding us on Twitter, @nexusunileeds. Make sure you follow our updates on the Nexus LinkedIn page.

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