Do we need new, resilient brand models?

Brand success in today’s hyper-fast cycle means persevering through the noise and trends that drive our consumer society. Brands are constantly in transition, constantly shifting and morphing in response to new social and economic realities. But it takes more than good strategy and the right insights to stay relevant. It takes stamina and resilience. It takes brand fitness.

Since the pandemic, the term “resilience” has occupied our minds – and our headlines. The act of being able to flow with changes, developing the capability of not only adapting, but thriving. It’s our new business and personal goal.

For brands, resilience is a first step toward becoming more future-able. Because the future is no longer a decade away. When we speak of the future now-a-days, we speak of a 1-3 year cycle in which things could change on a big scale.

(In comparison, a macro scale future is 10-20 years at least. But that exceeds most of our imagination capabilities.)

To achieve resilience – or as Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes it even further in his new book, Antifragile – traditional brand strategies and operating systems are no longer valid. They haven’t been for quite some time. We just couldn’t accept it yet. Then the pandemic hit, and it showed us, among many things, that the playbook to brand relevance and long-term success has changed. Brand leaders are now focused on making their brands more resilient and more fit in new fluid and holistic ways – through more fluid and holistic strategies, initiatives and approaches.

This is brand fitness: Building a more robust, pliable system to thrive through changes, adeptly develop new skills, and being able to recognize patterns and act on them.

Personally, I like the term fitness because it describes an active, regular practice, much like our own fitness routines. Brand fitness is more concrete and understandable than resilience, which, let’s be honest, is a vague term for most non-native speakers.

Fitness can have many variations. In today’s diverse economic landscape with hyper-specialized niche brands existing alongside global mainstream giants, fitness is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It exists in variations and depends on the type of organization, brand and its customers. Speaking of: It’s also important to remember that customers no longer have one set of characteristics, easily collaged onto a single persona. Each customer can embody more than one, even multiple, personas.

Brand, communication and marketing professionals often grapple with this. When I find myself too deep in a brand bubble, and need to zoom out again, I just take a look at how I shop across different categories like food, clothing, travel. What set of values comes into play and with what priority? How do those priorities shift when I decide what to buy? What categories elicit stronger brand loyalty than others, i.e. clothing versus airline providers? And why, why, why?

Beyond data and insights

Common practice today is to just look at data and interpret insights. Looking at a trend like sustainability, though, we realize that it’s not a single, straight-forward motivation that drives us. The data may point in many directions, or may be incomplete (there’s only so much organizations can collect).

It’s nuanced in breadth and depth – and different for everyone. And that’s what makes it so challenging for brands: If you’re only going to consider past and present behavior to (loosely) predict future preferences, you’re guaranteed constant surprises down the road. But that’s how it’s been done in the past, with more or less great success – and that’s the opposite of brand fitness.

Brand fitness calls for taking all we’ve learned in generating insights out of data in the past decade, and adding a layer of “horizon scanning”, what many call foresight or exploration in today’s practice.

Both hindsight / reflection and foresight / prediction are important elements to building future-able brands.

It’s also the reason purpose and brand values are becoming so important. A brand needs to be rooted in something beyond customer data to provide stability and continuity when executing the increasingly interconnected, fluid strategies that are needed today. Not only for its employees, but also for its many customers.

Models can help

One thing we often turn to, to provide clarity and direction, are models. A model refers to a framework or tool that is used to understand, analyze, or develop something, in our case a business, brand or marketing strategy. It provides a structured approach for identifying the strategic key elements and how they interact with or are dependent on each other.

When speaking of brand fitness, a model needs to create routines and behaviors, not just static directions. It used to be the case that strategy was developed once a year for the upcoming 1–3 years (there’s that cycle again). But because everything is in constant motion today, organizations need to be strategic 24/7. A model needs to allow and support that.

New reality, new skills, new priorities

The last few years have proven one thing: That business has already changed, but we are still catching up to its new realities. There’s no single success formula anymore. Instead, there are many, depending on your business, organization, customer and market – or your personal values, goals and preferences.

We exercise our brand fitness when we view the brand in its wider context: within its own market and larger economic region, as well as within its customer base and wider target group. When we take a step back on a regular basis (more than once a year), and look for connections between seemingly disconnected things, we practice two important future-able skills: critical thinking and big picture framing.

I remember a few years ago, the hot thing to aspire to was becoming future-ready. That’s not enough anymore. Today, it’s about enacting future-able strategies, behaviors and contributions. Developing an organizational strategic thinking muscle, looking at the larger context of your brand not only in past data, but in future opportunities, and steering the organization not through top-down plans but through values and shared purpose, are the markers of a very exciting new era for brands.

An exercise in big picture framing

Curious to that larger context I spoke of? Here’s a little exercise to help you take a step back from your everyday and reflect on the connections, trends and behaviors that have changed in your industry and your life in the past few years.

Big Picture Framing exercise
What you need

→ Post-its / a piece of paper / a miro board to capture your observations. (Or download the above template.)

How it works
  1. Divide your board into three quadrants.
  2. In the first quadrant, reflect and make a note of how your industry has changed in the past four years. This can be tiny things, like remote work, or big trends that have altered the way your organization does business. The objective is to look outside of your usual field of vision. It does not have to precise or correct, just your perspective
  3. Repeat the same inquiry, this time reflecting on how you, your preferences and your routines have changed in the past four years. Make notes on the other side of your board.
  4. Look for connections and cluster notes across both quadrants. Give each cluster a name that best describes it.
  5. Take a step back and review your findings. What’s interesting? What stands out? How might that be relevant for you personally or your organization moving forward?
Questions to guide your inquiry

Generally speaking: What’s different now versus before? Do you find it interesting or significant in any way (in your opinion)?

Following that question: What subject matter did your answers belong to (i.e. your career, personal development)? What does that say about what’s important in your life and work?

Professionally speaking: Has anything changed in the way you work? If so, how? If you brainstorm more on this, might more change in the coming years that you already see glimpses of?

What new brands or industries (i.e. crypto) do you find exciting? Which ones haven’t you thought of in a very long time? Are you surprised at your answers? Why or why not?

What new skills are becoming relevant?

How have new technologies impacted your work and life (think AI)?

Where have you been hanging out, digitally and IRL? Which medium do you use today more or less than before (i.e. video, audio, chat)?

What topics influence you or keep showing up on your radar (i.e. diversity, sustainability, equal pay)? How do you stand to them? Why are they important and what implications might they have on you and the wider population / economy / world?

How have you grown or changed in the past few years?

Have your values or priorities shifted in any way? If so, can you describe how or why?

How do you define belonging to a group (i.e. company, social circle, community)? Has that changed? If so, how would you describe those changes and what they might mean for you?