Pivot Your Brand to Thrive in a Down Economy

April 28, 2020 | by David Lemley

“We are here for you.”

“We are all in this together.”

Claims of unity and common purpose are ubiquitous across all marketing channels now (accompanied by soft piano music and photos of people smiling behind their face masks). It’s hard to differentiate brands and campaigns; everyone’s singing from the same song sheet.

But what comes next?

As soon as we’re over “we’re all in this together” it’s going to be “all about me” again.

In the book Beloved and Dominant Brands, we discuss the five roles of good advertising — and two of those concepts in particular point the way toward a post-pandemic communication strategy for better-for-you brands.

5 Pillars of Great Advertising

In the consumer brand space, good advertising is …

A badge or password. Advertising can, through repetition, pair a brand with a graphic mark that fans can wear or a tagline that they can repeat to show they’re in the tribe. Think of “Dilly Dilly” and the Nike swoosh — catchphrases and totems that people use to identify themselves and connect with others in the tribe.

A visual ‘snack.’ In digital channels, advertising has to be super quick to catch the eye and easy to consume. The days when advertisers could be clever and ask their audiences to read, let alone think … those are long gone.

A prompt to action. Advertising doesn’t have to tell the full story; it needs to inspire those who know just enough about the brand to be curious, and those who think they may be ready to join the converted.

The next two roles for advertising in the BFY space are key to our discussion of “how does our strategy shift after this crisis?”

An extended hand. BFY brands tend to be, by nature, a bit exclusionary — targeting vegans or health-conscious moms or outdoor aficionados. But to grow, they need to leverage smart advertising to welcome those consumers who may be circling just outside the group awaiting an invitation to join.

And that’s the state of all brand advertising right now: an extended hand. “We’re all in this together.”

The catch is that when all brands are saying the same thing, it’s impossible to stand out. And so — when the public health crisis eases and instead we’re deep in an economic recession — savvy BFY brands will turn (or return) to this type of advertising:

A velvet rope. Once you identify who’s in your tribe, you have permission to keep the nonbelievers out. Advertising can function like a bouncer outside a fashionable club who casts a discerning eye and waves the right kind of guest into the party. This may feel counterintuitive at first — why would a brand want to turn people away? But it’s the best way to generate real growth because it invites like-minded humans to come to you.

The brands that will have deep, resonant, recession-busting traction will be the ones that effectively move from the currently ubiquitous “extended hand” strategy to the “velvet rope” strategy.

Advertising to a Select Audience

Why does the velvet rope strategy work? Because humans are tribal. If we cannot break off into real factions and splinter cells, we invent them (think: pescatarian, keto-kings, foodies).

Brands that play to the masses will be reduced to One-of-Many, not Beloved and Dominant status. Your job as a brand marketer is to give consumers a story worth sharing in the future.

You’re wondering, “Isn’t it kind of mean to tell people they’re not invited to the party? How do we communicate exclusiveness in a way that isn’t too alienating?” Let’s look at some tactics:

First, your current messaging should be helpful, optimistic, supportive, and true to your brand’s authentic voice. Show your audience small acts of love.

Beware of simply bolting that “we’re here for you” messaging onto a brand story—like the car dealers in our region that are promising contactless transactions to keep people safe but are still selling you the dang car.

BFY brands that are getting this “extended hand” strategy right include Patagonia and Chobani. They were among the first to market with new messaging about helping consumers and employees get through this crisis. As they continue to do their good works (saving the planet, supporting food banks) it feels genuine because it’s part of their brand expression.

To survive the coming recession, though, both Patagonia and Chobani will lean heavily on their “velvet rope” strategies — whispering in believers’ ears. Patagonia speaks the language of outdoor activity and environmental activism; Chobani of health and vibrancy. Nonbelievers need not apply.

The key to “velvet rope” advertising is tone: It’s about identity and belonging and “us” rather than superiority and snobbery and “them.” Your messaging has to be unique to your brand — like a bat signal, only some people can see it or are drawn to it. REI gets this tone right: Anyone can shop there, after all, but membership in the co-op lets you in on the secret handshake. REI’s marketing language speaks to a passion for the outdoors and human connection to nature; that language is like a dog whistle to lifelong believers.

Some brands are naturally super exclusive, not in the sense of cost but in lifestyle or interest. If that’s your brand — say, you’re a vegan brand that’s most definitely not for the Standard-American-Diet-eating consumer — then your velvet rope messaging might lean on humor to balance out a tone of earnestness and clan-ism.

Finally, your messaging needs to be inclusive, not exclusive. Create the opportunity for the customer to opt into your club. It’s not your decision about whether they get in or not; it’s theirs. Furthermore, becoming part of your tribe shouldn’t disqualify them from others. Don’t tell them not to buy potato chips or candy bars. Your messaging should be more about “we know a better way, so come with us,” not “don’t go over there.”

When your brand is built on a strong strategic foundation — your promise and the way that you keep it with your people — it’s an easy pivot from “everyone” to “just us.” And that pivot will be essential as you seek to survive any recession.

Do you feel your brand could use some positioning or messaging fine-tuning? Let’s talk.