How brands can avert the next crisis: Don’t go back to normal.

If you’re not content with two ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ crises in a generation, how about a third?

The global banking crisis started only 12 years ago in 2008. And according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in September 2018, we now only have 10 more years before the next global catastrophe: the climate crisis.

Well before the declaration of a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, we were already talking about the need for mass behaviour change to safeguard our futures. 

Indeed, The Grantham Institute (Imperial College London’s hub for climate change and the environment) recently set out 9 types of behaviours that we all need to adopt to reduce our impact on the planet, including cutting back on flying and driving, protecting green spaces and reducing energy usage.

A pivotal moment of mass behaviour change 

But behaviour change is notoriously difficult to achieve and even harder to sustain. Or so we thought. As the saying goes: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.”

Suddenly, mass behaviour change has happened virtually overnight. And many of the new behaviours we’re adopting could be good for the planet if they were sustained long-term. This has led to some glimmers of hope and brief moments of rejoicing against a backdrop of tragedy.

For example, we’re suddenly discovering the viability and desirability of low-carbon behaviours like ditching flights in favour of Google Meet calls; running and cycling to support the health service in partnership with Strava via initiatives like NHS Active; sharing food to cut waste and overcome feelings of isolation via new neighbourhood platforms like Olio; and delivering food via Starship robots to isolated residents and key workers without the need for a driver or traditional vehicle.

How should brands respond? Never go back to normal

There’s a big risk for brands ahead: As restrictions begin to ease and societies begin to re-open, it’s dangerous to assume everything will snap ‘back to normal’. Yes, people will naturally want to return to some of their routines in both leisure and work. But the idea that popular expectations of brands won’t change and companies can carry on regardless is misguided.

This is a moment of mass reflection and soul searching - for individuals, businesses and governments. We’re ready to question everything from the ground up. 

Whilst it was previously fashionable and provocative to say that the world was changing at incredible pace, it’s now stating the obvious. Given such rapid change, we have a real opportunity to rebuild and remodel how people and systems work. We are already asking ourselves some fundamental questions about how we work, organise teams, utilise space, consume and produce. 

Almost without realising, we’re all radicals now. 

A brand new future

In this moment of radical change, the role of brands is under question: Can brands do more than fuel consumption and waste? How can brands shape a more resilient future rather than being opportunistic in a time of crisis? How can brands take us all forward and avoid defaulting ‘back to normal’ - yearning nostalgically for a past that is no longer desirable anyway?

If we don’t ask these questions - and pretend that brands are amoral, apolitical and somehow not integral to rebuilding in a sustainable way, what then? 

How deep does your sense of responsibility go?

We believe that the job of brand (re)building is needed on several levels. By this, we mean that it’s now critical to think about a brand’s full ‘footprint’ in terms of who it touches. Of course, that still includes individual citizens. But it should start much deeper - down at the fundamental level of a brand’s employees to ensure that a brand is built on credible foundations and not a veneer. And it should also extend upwards to consider the broader society in which a brand operates.

The big challenge for brands now is to define the depth of their responsibilities as part of the rebuilding process - and not how to get back to business as usual. 

The employer responsibility

In a world where mass unemployment must be addressed and where private companies are well placed to help vulnerable citizens, it is crucial for brands to demonstrate that they are - at their core - responsible and responsive employers. 

Indeed, when it comes to peoples’ expectations of businesses and brands, Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer recently found that of several institutions, “my employer” is the most trusted relationship - ahead of relationships with business in general, NGOs, government or media companies. That trust is going to be heavily tested in the weeks and months ahead and - depending on how brands behave in regard to their employees - could drive brand trust in radically different directions. Indeed, the same survey notes that the penalty for companies that put profit ahead of people is severe, with 71% of people saying that this will erode their trust in a brand forever.   

Will brands continue to prize presenteeism and demand people commute to the workplace after months of asking people to stay at home? Will they still demand that employees travel the globe to show face in meetings when so many of us have successfully got to grips with virtual meetings?

Microsoft is one company committed not just to helping people ditch commutes and work better remotely (for example through its Teams digital platform), but also to helping its own employees work better in physical spaces. Microsoft’s new Silicon Valley campus was designed and built in collaboration with innovative local Californian businesses with the objectives of restoring the local habitat and integrating it into office design, all to increase levels of wellbeing and productivity amongst its workforce.

The consumer responsibility

Brands will obviously still need to drive consumer demand post-pandemic, but the question will become whether brands can do it in a way that encourages behaviours that are better for both consumers and the planet (not either/or).

One big positive lesson coming out of this crisis is that human health and planetary health are fundamentally interdependent. Georg Kell (founder of the United Nations Global Compact and Chairman of ESG investment group, Arabesque Partners) noted recently that the pandemic should above all be “a wakeup call that our wellbeing is closely tied to the health of the planet”. 

Indeed, if brands can help people understand that protecting nature can in turn lower risks of animal-borne infectious diseases (and thus reduce the spread of further viruses), brands can create far more persuasive and positive narratives about why you should make greener choices. 

In short, brands can help people understand that green means ‘good for me’ as well as ‘good for the planet’.

Moreover, brands can help individuals make better choices (and demonstrate huge value) by sorting fact from fiction. 

For example, during the health crisis, the BBC has become by far the UK’s most trusted news source. One poll, published on March 20, found that 64% of respondents named it as their most reliable source of information. This trusted role will continue to be highly valuable when it comes to defining which brands and behaviours dramatically harm the planet, versus those which are truly helping.

The societal responsibility

At the broadest level, brands must also consider their societal responsibilities. 

European CEOs, politicians, companies, lawmakers and activists have already called for green investment to restart growth post-pandemic, stating that fighting climate change and promoting biodiversity will help to rebuild stronger economies.

This kind of cross-sector cooperation helps to raise the profile of brands as true leaders, but also places them at the forefront of a conversation about growth - which is no longer divisible from a conversation about the climate.

The opportunity for brands to lead a ‘green recovery’ is something that McKinsey (one of our global clients) recently highlighted as being both timely and a potential source of competitive advantage. Indeed, they noted that “investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and the transition to a lower-carbon future can drive significant near-term job creation while increasing economic and environmental resiliency. And with near-zero interest rates for the foreseeable future, there is no better time than the present for such investments.”

A time for climate action, not just reflection

It’s now imperative for brands to review how deeply they take their responsibility to drive more sustainable behaviours - amongst employees, consumers and society at large. Brands will need to make some hard calls on what behaviours they’re going to encourage and those they’ll actively discourage based on what’s best for business as well as our collective futures.

For, if we are to avoid a third crisis in as many decades, brands must use their power to nudge better habits that benefit both the individual and the collective. It’s time to rebuild in the right way - and never look back.