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Four Seasons, Total Brandscaping

Matt Herlihy
Dec 3, 2020 · 9 min read

A quarter-by-quarter retelling of how brands behaved in 2020 — and what might come next.

A year ago, we wondered in this space whether a brand could really be thankful. Could an engine of profit truly express an emotion so human as gratitude? And would consumers buy it?

We concluded that being a successful brand, like being a good person, often requires difficult decisions backed by strong values. But we held hope that through honest and courageous engagement with the world, the lines between brands and people might begin to blur. A more authentic, more human connection was possible.

Ah, 2019. It was a simpler time.

Relationships between brands and their constituents have since escalated dramatically. In some cases, the stakes have risen from buying and selling to living and dying. Between Mother Nature’s unforeseen wild card and the pot-stirring of politics, all parties have been tested to their limits.

And while most of the year’s catalytic events remain unresolved, hindsight now offers perspective on how brands have navigated the year. Over four dramatic quarters, a story arc has emerged that may shed light on future behavior.

So as our time of national healing begins, last year’s big question now evolves into its 2021 version: What will brands do now? And just as importantly: What should they do?

The father of medicine, Hippocrates, had a clear-eyed perspective on the matter. “Look to the seasons when choosing your cures,” he said. Even now, two thousand years later, we’re wise to listen.

Spring

The dawn of 2020 saw brands riding high in America. The economy was surging, tax cuts were accruing interest, and regulations were fading fast. Unemployment was low and spirits high. The twenties seemed ready to roar.

The mightiest of brands still looked like corporations to the naked eye, but within, they bore a closer resemblance to nation-states. These titans maintained their own security forces, foreign policies, and gleaming campuses bustling with office space for as far as the eye could see.

Boardrooms cackled with capitalist glee. But like the Joker, they soon discovered that their grand plans were vulnerable enough to be foiled by one disruptive bat.

The arrival of coronavirus to our shores, despite months of warning from its first victims, caught most brands slack-jawed and flat-footed. Spring, normally the time for rebirth, shifted into reverse. A national shutdown largely stripped companies of their ability to sell their wares, yet they still felt an instinctive need to remain in the minds of consumers.

And a funny thing happened. Captive audiences found themselves watching the same TV commercial on an infinite loop. It began with strains of somber piano music over sweeping shots of an evacuated Main Street, lingering on its shuttered storefronts. Then the voiceover started.

For years, we were told, our brand has been around. Because we’re people, like you. Like a family. And we’ll keep being here. Especially now, in these uncertain times. We’ll find ways of staying close, even while we’re apart. We’re here for you. And together, we’ll get through this.

Brands had spent decades, some even centuries, devising new ways to stand apart from the crowd. Yet in this uncanny moment, across every industry and on every channel, they uttered the same platitudes in unison. Every day a brand promised we’d “get through this,” more and more Americans sadly proved them wrong — a hundred thousand by spring’s end.

Playing it safe may have been an understandable choice, given the nation’s emotional state. No one wanted to take a chance when leaving home was risky enough. But in a singular moment where brands had the opportunity to connect on a deeper and more human level, they defaulted to the same script. And when everyone says “we care,” it can easily feel like no one does.

The country had seen behind the curtain, and the wizards of branding didn’t seem so magical after all. Now their words — like those once-bustling office campuses — appeared eerily empty.

Summer

As a grim spring finally receded — and with it, the bulk of lockdown restrictions — brands rediscovered their voices and declared themselves open for business again. They were down, they admitted, but not out. Viral curves began to flatten while economic hopes started to rise.

With equal parts caution and enthusiasm, brands willed their customers to heed the siren song of summer and face a brighter day. Emerge again, they commanded, and reclaim your rightful place on our once-empty Main Streets!

Which millions did, but for different reasons entirely.

The death of George Floyd brought the nation’s temperature from simmer to boil. Protests went viral in their own manner, breaking out from Minneapolis all over the world. Across boundaries of culture and language, supporters did more than echoing slogans. They made demands, even named names.

Millions of voices spoke in unison, just as brands had months before. But these shared words were inspired not by an abundance of caution, but a paucity of justice.

The movement produced a seismic shift in the relationship between people and corporations. Suddenly, according to timely data, a majority of consumers wanted brands to express a public and moral stance on bigotry and oppression. Companies taking action would gain their trust and their business, while those offering words alone would be penalized.

So once again, brands experienced both social and commercial pressure to adopt a particular stance on a single issue. Like the pandemic, this demand was bigger than them, intensely emotional, and sparing of no industry. Virtually all organizations made perfunctory statements, as expected, yet some met the moment with surprising decisiveness.

A shoe giant took an anti-bigotry stance so bold, its arch-rival echoed it. A once-humble ice cream brand demanded national healing and policy reform. A major bank pledged a cool billion to fight racial inequality. Companies updated hiring policies over the course of weeks, not months, in an effort to diversify their ranks from the inside.

Such moves might have been borne from moral courage or commercial necessity — most likely, a strategic combination of both. But either way, they got people’s attention and made them feel heard.

Yet the backdrop of a pending election still complicated matters. Both public health and social justice measures were exploited and politicized immediately, converting shared pains into wedge issues. Face masks and black squares turned from communal gestures into polarizing cultural signifiers.

We’re accustomed to the change of seasons. But split-screen imagery comparing spring to summer might serve as the ultimate symbol of the times. On the left, the ice-blue skies and distant snow-capped mountains enabled by the spring shutdown. And at right, record-breaking summer forest fires burning into a neon-orange hellscape.

Fall

With leaves changing and the election growing closer, brands faced yet another conundrum in their desire to connect more deeply with consumers: choose a side or remain neutral?

On one hand, the summer’s protests proved that aligning a brand with an ascendant cause could build trust and achieve commercial results. The election might present a test case for actually doing what companies always profess: living their values, even amid difficult decisions. For those espousing traditional ones — honesty, integrity, inclusion — the choice of candidates could hardly have been a head-scratcher.

Then again, brands are designed for broad appeal. The wider the net is cast, the more consumers become available. Even hinting at an electoral preference would certainly alienate a sizable chunk of the customer base — a minority, by all counts, but still holding tens of millions of wallets. And whatever that faction might lack in relative spending power, it could make up for in passion. Not to mention volume.

Some leaders took the riskier approach and chose a side on behalf of their brands. A tech founder emailed ten million customers with a direct plea to vote for his preferred candidate, generating some backlash but securing employee support. A bean company CEO offered a gushing endorsement in the Rose Garden, delivering his brand both an Oval Office shilling and a consumer “buycott.”

Despite these outliers — and in the face of data that nearly two-thirds of customers will buy from brands who share their beliefs — most organizations still defaulted to a neutral stance. The fever pitch of this particular election, they calculated, was just too hot for another round of principled risk-taking.

At minimum, social media platforms made minor policy tweaks to avoid reprising their role in the 2016 election. And leading disinfectant brands did remind consumers not to, you know, inject their products. But for the most part, we saw brands’ commercial calculation — if you’ll forgive the term—trump their values.

That relative silence seemed to grow louder as the election drew nearer and circumstances darkened. COVID deaths eclipsed two hundred thousand. A sitting governor faced a failed kidnapping attempt. The vaccine effort, while attempting to move at warp speed, appeared bound to the glacial pace of cold, hard science.

The nation awaited November third with a curious sense of emotional dissonance. Voters hoped that democracy would do its job, yet dreaded that it might not. On the morning of the election, a respected academic described the combination perfectly: “I remain nauseously optimistic.”

More paradoxes arose once results finally emerged. The election wasn’t close, yet it seemed tighter than expected. A victor was declared, yet a concession was absent. As in the summer prior, Americans took to the streets — some in jubilation, others denial.

Now, as the smoke clears — thankfully, the proverbial kind — brands are likely breathing a sigh of relief. Stable institutions are good for economies. Divided government, say many, is good for business. For this season, at least, neutrality may have worked after all.

The tsunami-sized wrinkle of the pandemic remains. Executives must be grateful — in private, at least — that a more attentive administration waits in the wings. A laissez-faire approach may be preferable when it comes to the free market, they’ll reason. But with a deadly virus, not so much. Brands do better when their customers remain alive.

Yet from their perspective, even on the COVID front, there is hope. Vaccine efforts have thus far exceeded all reasonable expectations of both speed and efficacy. Their makers deserve huge credit — as does the government’s willingness to take on significant financial risk. It’s the kind of achievement that only a public–private partnership can pull off.

That rare bit of 2020 good news is as bright as fall foliage. And hopefully far less fleeting.

Winter

As days shorten and temperatures fall, it’s a relief that some key variables seem headed toward a level of resolution. But each still barrels on, carrying its own uncertainty like a sidecar. Yes, the election is decided, but transitions are always tricky. Yes, vaccines are progressing, but supply chains for distributing them are complicated.

Plus, that whole other phenomenon that’s barely gotten a mention? The one behind unprecedented wildfires and an entire alphabet’s worth of storm names? Still there, urgent as ever.

Yet we’re already seeing the symbiotic gears of government and business find their grooves once more. A coordinated appeal from business leaders helped initiate the first steps of the presidential transition, albeit a fortnight later than hoped. And a major auto manufacturer has reversed its stance on fuel economy standards, shifting its allegiance from vanquished to victor. Maybe there’s hope for those skies just yet.

It’s unlikely that 2021 will fully reverse the annus horribilis that’s nearly behind us. But the brands that survive 2020 should be grateful for the opportunity to do their part. Which brings us back to our original pair of questions.

What will brands do now? And what should they? The smart ones will heed old Dr. Hippocrates and look to the seasons when choosing their cures. They’ll contemplate the lessons of 2020 and adjust accordingly.

That means committing to your voice, even when those around you fall back on empty platitudes. Being ready to make a stand for a cause that’s consistent with your values, through both words and actions. Having the courage to be righteous now and then, even if it rubs some people the wrong way. Working with others — even Big Government — on problems that can only be solved together.

It also means cultivating your sense of humility in the years ahead. Even the best-fortified nation-state is no match for Mother Nature. Persuasive as you may be to consumers, your ultimate responsibility toward them goes beyond mere transactions. When government fails them, they look to you for leadership and truth. Remember that, and honor their trust.

That other, better-known old Hippocratic chestnut, “First, do no harm,” is an excellent starting point. But it’s only the beginning — for brands, elected officials, and all of us, whatever our political stance.

That good doctor knew that the word crisis originated in describing the turning point of a disease. It’s that critical moment where one of two things happens. Either heal, or die.

So far, as of this writing, we’ve survived. But damn, it’s been close.

If 2020 was America’s near-death experience, the year ahead is ready for our newfound moment of clarity. We’d be fools to waste it.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is…

Matt Herlihy

Written by

Brand philosopher. Executive Director, Strategy, The Office of Experience. Author, speaker, and instructor.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us is made better by design.

Matt Herlihy

Written by

Brand philosopher. Executive Director, Strategy, The Office of Experience. Author, speaker, and instructor.

Better By __

At The Office of Experience, we believe the experience is the brand®. The best brand experiences are better by design. But they’re also better by strategy, technology, and message. Better By explores the ways in which the world around us is made better by design.

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