Business As Unusual: Brand Marketing in an Unpredictable World


This article was originally published by Little Black Book @

Not so long ago the word “disruption” was something every startup and tech worker aspired to. If you accomplished disruption, it meant you’d seen and taken an unprecedented path forward that changed the expectations of how consumers use products and services.

These days, we’ve all become acquainted with what true disruption looks like: empty offices, boarded-up  storefronts, faces hidden behind masks, and violent public clashes. 

We need to find a path forward in terms of brand marketing, despite what may happen next. Here are three fundamental—but crucial—ways to get there.

Listen. And then communicate what your customers actually care about.

The global disruption of 2020 will cast a long shadow into the foreseeable future. Working remotely will become more common. Some form of social distancing will be the norm. And the things people care about—socially and politically—are more important to them than ever.

One thing we’ve learned from research in recent months is that people want to know that the brands they choose are there for them when they need them most. And they’re interested in hearing how brands and companies are taking care of their employees, their customers, and their communities. So to truly be there for your customers, you need to understand what’s top of mind at any given point in time. It may be your product, it may not be your product. They may need something else from you or nothing at all. But they do need to know that you have their best interests at heart. And that you’re listening. 

That said, there are plenty of brands out there beating their customers over the head with messaging that all sounds exactly the same. So you must continually shift the way you’re talking with your customers, keeping your finger on the pulse of what they need and want from you. Address them in new ways. And find ways of talking about the things they’re worried about in the context of your brand.

To truly be there for your customers, you need to understand what’s top of mind at any given point in time.
Be 100% honest, 100% of the time.

But here’s the key: any brand messaging needs to come from a place of transparency, trust, and honesty. If you come across one way when you’re truly not that way, or try to be empathetic in a situation where it doesn’t require you to be empathetic, you’re going to suffer significantly more than you would with just a bad marketing message. If you get the “trust” message wrong, or the “anxiety” message wrong, or if people think you’re messaging “safety” just to get them in the door, you’re done.

So now, more than ever, you—as a brand—need to be 100% honest, 100% of the time.

Any brand messaging needs to come from a place of transparency, trust, and honesty.

People and companies are going to make mistakes—and there will be a lot of them over the next several months. If you get something wrong, admit it, offer a sincere apology, offer a solution, and move on. By bringing real solutions to the table after a blunder, by handling mistakes with grace and authenticity, you can move on while making a meaningful contribution toward larger goals.

Get your digital marketing house in order.

Digital needs are going to shift dramatically in the new reality of a fill-in-the-blank-catastrophe-possible world. Is your brand set up to pivot campaigns and marketing tactics to be adaptable for future situations?

Now’s the time to set up your marketing organization to be agile, to understand the different tactics and levers you have access to, and when to use them. Understand deeply what your marketing tech stack is and how all of the metrics across all of your campaigns—paid media, events, social media—work. And make sure they all talk to one another to avoid having a hundred different contingency plans based on every potential catastrophe. 

Plans don’t matter—planning is what’s essential.

Brand marketing in today’s world—a world we’ve learned can host true disruption in the blink of an eye—has to be mapped out with the understanding that the plan is likely not going to go according to plan. So adopt technology and create strategic plans that enable adaptability, agility, and flexibility. To paraphrase Dwight D. Eisenhower, plans don’t matter—planning is what’s essential.

What’s next?

No doubt the events of 2020 have forever changed the way we’ll work and live. And one thing we can be certain of in all of this uncertainty is that true disruption will happen again. It may come as a pandemic, or a worldwide internet hack, or a power grid blackout, or some other adversity we haven’t thought of yet. 

What seems clear is that honesty, flexibility, and compassion are going to be more important than ever. And the abilities to pivot quickly to stay effective and to listen with open ears and open hearts will be critical skills for weathering what comes next. 

About Marco Iannucci, Mark Daws, and April Huff

At global digital marketing agency Firewood, Marco Iannucci is senior director, strategy; Mark Daws is senior art director; and April Huff is director, strategy.