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How businesses treat their employees during the Covid 19 crisis will lead to a reckoning – a very bitter one if times get hard. A famous poster, headlined “What did you do in the war daddy?”, was designed to shame men into volunteering for the army during world war one. It could be adapted in our time for bosses- “When the pandemic struck, how did you look after your workers?”

We will learn who the good guys and the bad guys are at some point in the next couple of years (or even right now- given the speed of social media at outing the clothe eared or arrogant) Personal reputations and brands will be destroyed or enhanced.

In the 2008 crash,  RBS was nationalised by the UK government because it was about to go bust – with horrible consequences for personal finances. CEO Fred Godwin, poster boy of red in tooth and claw acquisitive capitalism, changed status from captain of the universe to vilified pariah in a just few days. Looking back on 2008, remarkably few people lost their reputations, but that was because we found it difficult to work out who the guilty people were (such are the opaque complexities of modern big finance)

This time it will be different. We can all see that Spurs ( for example) have decided to furlough  their back room staff whilst paying in full the wages of their multi-millionaire players.

Media are different – 12 years on from the crash of 2008, social media are even more widely used and the bad guys will be outed quickly. Gary Lineker, a prolific tweeter, has pointed out how grotesque the Spurs decision looks.

The unpredictable factor is how bad things will get over the next months

Many workers are only one pay check (or freelance fee) away from debt – because over the past decade or more wages have stagnated. Now they have nothing to fall back on and without funds the consequence will be widespread poverty and desperation that conjures up images of 1920s great depression. The atmosphere could get very bitter indeed.

This crisis will produce many more Fred Goodwins. And good guys too – Eddie Howe, manager of Bournemouth, was the first manger to offer to take a pay cut. His fast and generous action will stand him in good stead.

But it is already clear that the likes of Daniel Levy ( of Spurs) and Mike Ashley ( of Newcastle FC) think that they are immune from public backlash. They will, i believe, be proved wrong. Let’s hope so.

 

My copy of The Economist now comes in a see through non-plastic wrapper that is “100% compostable” and can be “put in the food waste bin”.

An example of “leadership thinking” you might think (from a brand that prides itself on foresight)

But, in truth, The Economist had no choice but to make this change because six months earlier competitor magazines had come similarly wrapped (like the Saturday issue of The Guardian). Not to have responded would have made The Economist seem cloth eared and leaden footed by contrast. (As we know from Behaviour Science, we humans make comparative not absolute judgements.)

Brands have to scan the horizon and work out what changes in culture to they need to respond to (and preferably get ahead of them).  The moment of danger comes when a competitor crystallises a cultural trend into a new product or service. A trend that is “in the air” and widely reported in the media becomes an emerging social norm.  Then the comparison questions crowd in quickly-what are we doing on this issue? Before you have responded, the same questions will be asked on social media about your brand.

Another  example – EasyJet recently sent me an email saying:

At 05:20 this morning, easyJet flight EJU5841 took to the skies and made history. Because starting today, we will offset the carbon emissions from the fuel used for every single easyJet flight, domestic and international.

You would have to have been living in a cave (and not know who Greta Thunberg is) to have missed this particular hot issue for the airlines- known to be major producers of earth heating emissions.

Now do this little test. Do a google search of “which airlines are …”. Google guesses that your question is going to be (top of the list) “which airlines are carbon neutral”. So, the question is already being asked. How long will it be before the likes of BA have to respond? If another brand announces that it too will be carbon offsetting its flights then BA will have to develop their policy or look off the pace.

Modern culture is full of traps for the unresponsive. Trends are easy to spot, but when does a trend turn into a new norm that you simply can’t ignore? Failure to respond can devastate your reputation. Just ask Prince Andrew who seems to not to have understood that the “Me-too” movement, crystalised by the Harvey Weinstein affair, might be relevant to him. He got sacked by The Queen.

What traps lie ahead for brands in 2020? Ideally you want to get ahead of a trend because that is what leaders do. But life is not so simple. “Events, dear boy, events”, as Harold MacMillan said of politics, can throw off the best laid plans. Such is the speed, pervasiveness and uncontrollability of modern media, brand management is becoming more like politics. Facebook (and Big tech in general) understand this and even hire ex-politicians like Nick Clegg to help them plan their communications.

To be protect their reputations, brands need to do scenario planning. A tip: imagine how a competitor might seek to enhance its credibility and relevance through a major product or service innovation that is “on trend.”

Challenger brands and start-ups represent a clue to the future as ideas at the margins can move to the mainstream especially if they are picked up by the bigger players

The question of environmental protection is now right at top of the agenda- no surprise there. But how will it play out in individual markets? Brands should play this thought experiment.  Here are a couple of thought starters: –

London: has been energetically building cycle lanes but has precious few electric buses. (I breath in a lot of fumes every day) The Chinese are way ahead in manufacturing electric buses. Orders for electric buses from the major UK cities could create a strong domestic industry- and not just imports from China. An issue for one of the mayoral candidates to champion?

Grocery retailing: I have just put out the weekly bins, which were crammed with the packaging by-products of shopping at my local supermarket. The 5-p charge has been a signature success in reducing the use of carrier bags (albeit initiated by government).  But where is the next big move coming from? Experiments in new no packaging stores might represent (part of) an alternative future? Try Googling “no packaging stores near me” to gauge how fast this trend is moving

Scenario planning is a healthy exercise for brands as it forces them to look at their business “from the outside in” and therefore anticipate possible futures in which they will be more in control of events rather than victims.

It has been a good year for training – mainly because i have been able to concentrate on topics that I find most interesting and for which I have been able to develop new knowledge inspired by my time at Google and a decade working on Behaviour Science ( starting with the late lamented COI in 2008). See the My training courses tab for details

I am becoming one of those people who shouts at the TV screen.

(I suppose it was inevitable – it comes with age along with hair sprouting unattractively from ears and nose and busy eyebrows. I haven’t developed the full Denis Healey – but i can see the direction of travel).

My ire is aimed at the commentariat who come on Newsnight, who seem to be mostly in a state of moral outrage. Cue plenty of pomposity and posturing about what the government does from groping to proroguing parliament – and in particular Dominic Cummings.

Cummings is often presented as an evil genius. He is not – he is just an advertising strategist with an effective communications idea.

If Newsnight was to invite branding and advertising experts onto their sofas they could lay it out more analytically for the viewers. But they tend to prefer journalists who are good at understanding todays headlines (and the nerdy details of today in parliament) but poor at the techniques of developing a long term brand positioning. Besides Journalists of the BBC type tend to look down their noses at Adfolk.

This is a pity because advertising strategists are not prone to either moral outrage or bien pensant snobbery. Rather, they deal with people as they really are and work back from there. Lets try that then:-

Start with human truths

People are not much interested in the arcane details of how parliament or the law works. They are busy. In their personal lives they have to go to work and get stuff done.

All Cummings has done is to spot that this is how people feel. He ( via Boris) uses parliament as a stage to confirm that it is an odds with how most of us have to behave to get through our lives.

He has done this through classic, brutally simple, brand positioning thinking that has three characteristics 1) a positioning that is easy to remember 2) that boxes in ( or “depositions” ) the competition and 3) (important this) is rooted in a widely accepted truth

The simple positioning: The tories will deliver on the will of the people

De-positioning the competition as: A confused group of interests that can’t get anything done except frustrate progress

The truth: Three years on from the vote parliament has stopped progress.

My point here is not – is this right or wrong? Just- is it effective? It is and that is why Cummings is hated. (He is also shy-is my guess- and given to covering this up with a carapace of aggression – which does not help)

Can The Labour Party mount a counter communications strategy ?

Labour now is too introverted and bound up in its own internal battles and bureaucratic structures.  It used to be good at communications strategy in the Blair/Campbell era- but both these men are now so hated The Labour Party  cannot learn from them.

Corbyn and MacDonald look and sound like machine politicians of the pre Blair era.  And in their attempt to fight Cummings they have fallen back on old, and distinctly retro, campaigning techniques. They have, late in the day, come up with a simple strategy. But is it any good?

The simple positioning:  We are the real representatives of the people

De-positioning the competition as: “posh boys”  or the rich elite  or a conspiracy of the rich elite ( an idea proposed on Newsnight by Paul Mason)

But a really good communications strategy has to have the ring of truth about it to take root and have longevity. This one -apart from being a throwback to the era of smoky rooms, long sideburn and flared Trowsers- doesn’t. All political parties have posh folk. Far from hating Eton, labour front benchers like their children to go to elite fee paying schools.

As for Mason’s conspiracy of the elites: this is a desperate attempt to re-present some city folk, who are shorting the pound,  as something more sinister. Conspiracy theories have a long and disreputable history and are almost always the product of a fevered imagination.  This one is not going to fly.

Try “the truth well told” instead

What should Labour do?  Try something truthful. Truth is the bedrock of a really good strategy. “The truth well told” is a good way to think of an effective strategy. This is what journalists often miss – as they tend to think of adfolk as people who hoodwink the public

The truth is that Brexit is a really complex and there is no “getting Brexit done” –  even if  the government gets an agreement through, it is just the start of years of negotiations. Without a deal – even more negotiations. We will be locked into an endless depressing cycle that will most likely lead to the breakup of the union. That is a really sad and unnecessary future.

I would start there – start calling it as it. The public will respect you for it

 

 

 

 

 

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that we can’t do much about it as that would require international cooperation. Good luck with that one.

The slightly better news is that excellent books have been written by academics/journalists to expose it. Three “must reads” have recently been published on different aspects of hidden power to do with 1) Big Tech’ and data 2) Money and the super rich 3) Politics being polluted by misinformation

  1. The Age of Surveillance capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. (which i have reviewed in an earlier post). Main message: Big Tech knows “everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others gain, not ours.”
  2. Money land by Oliver Bullough. Main message. The super rich/kleptocratic autocrats employ (often British) experts to help them hide their money on a huge scale. Jimmy Carr was just a pimple in this game. Nobody knows how much, but it is trillions. It impoverishes further poor countries, degrades public services in rich ones, and undermines institutions. If the super rich paid their taxes the NHS would not have a problem.
  3. This is Not Propaganda-Peter Pomarantsev.  Main message: Online mis-information techniques invented in Russia have spread out across the world. It is organised by the rich and powerful who no longer feel the need to be truthful and have undermined the very idea of truth. There is no truth, just “alternative facts”. I strongly recommend this book which lifts up a stone to expose all manner of grubby ghastly creepy crawlies to the light. Here are 4 extracts