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3 Keys to a Resilient Brand

by Jake Herway

Story Highlights

  • Leaders can prepare for aftershocks with clarity around brand identity
  • Consistency consolidates strategy and simplifies decision-making
  • Committing to your brand promise creates invaluable customer trust

As tough as times are for business right now, it's the aftershocks that we really need to be prepared for.

We saw the same dynamic after the Great Recession -- the repercussions can last longer and cut deeper than the initial crisis.

Leadership teams are already preparing for resiliency in the post-COVID world. But their best business continuity strategy is tightening the bond between the brand and the customer now.

It only takes one misaligned leader to undermine your brand. Your leadership team's decision-making and communication have to be in sync. If there's any hidden variance now, it'll end in disaster for the brand in tough times ahead. A resilient brand starts with a leadership team that is:

  • Clear: Be absolutely clear on your company's identity, what you stand for, who you exist for and what you do for them better than anyone else does.

A fractured, everything-to-everyone response weakens the clarity of your value to your customers.

  • Consistent: Aim everything at supporting the people you exist for.

Consistency consolidates your business strategy, simplifies your decision-making and brings credibility to your value.

  • Committed: When you know who you exist for and consistently aim your strategy at them, commit to that decision.

Backtracking wastes time and dilutes your customer message. Commitment to your identity, especially in the face of pressure to yield, is the final ingredient to a credible and dependable brand.

Clear, consistent and committed leadership teams make decisions with less friction -- decisions that are quicker to execute, get broader stakeholder buy-in and keep value so visible that it is unmissable.

Lessons in Brand Resiliency From the Tylenol Crisis

Think about James Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, and his team's decision to pull every bottle of Tylenol out of U.S. stores in 1982 because seven deaths from cyanide poisoning were traced back to sales of Tylenol in a handful of Chicago-area stores.

At the time, Tylenol accounted for 19% of J&J's corporate profits, 13% of year-to-year sales growth and 33% of year-to-year profit growth. But after tampering incidents surfaced at just a handful of stores, this leadership team pulled all 31 million bottles of Tylenol in distribution -- at a cost of over $100 million, in 1982 dollars -- because they were clear on the company's identity, consistent in their application of it and committed to seeing it through. Having a credo that codified this clarity, consistency and commitment was a key mechanism to their effective decision-making.

"The credo is all about the consumer," Burke said. "It gave me the ammunition I needed to persuade shareholders and others to spend the $100 million on the recall. The credo helped sell it."

Tylenol was relaunched two months later with new, tamper-proof packaging -- which became standard for a huge variety of products -- and by the end of 1983, Tylenol had 35% of the analgesic market share.

In 2000, Burke received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2003, Fortune magazine named him one of history's 10 greatest CEOs.

Back in 1982, Burke didn't know that would be the outcome of this decision. He just knew he had a major problem at hand. But he also clearly knew who J&J existed for and how to deliver a consistent response and real commitment. That made the decision much less difficult.

Clear, consistent and committed leadership decisions relay a narrative about a company's brand to its customers -- and can create perceptions that last forever.

Your decisions become your brand.

To see how customers' opinions of your decisions can permanently define what you're known for, consider a direction Burke's team didn't take -- pulling Tylenol out of only Chicago.

It would have made sense. No poisonings were reported anywhere else, and a great deal of revenue would have been saved. But the message would have been different.

Even if customers outside of Chicago knew Tylenol posed no danger to them, they might have presumed that J&J was willing to take calculated risks with Americans' health.

On the other hand, the decision to destroy every last bottle of Tylenol told customers that J&J genuinely cared about their wellbeing. That message assured Americans -- whether they were customers or not -- that they could trust J&J with their lives.

It cost over $100 million to deliver that message, but it allowed J&J to keep its brand promise clearly, consistently and with extraordinary commitment. And customers got the message. The world still remembers J&J's decision almost four decades after it was made.

How will you be remembered?

Most leadership teams don't have to face a decision like that, mercifully.

But many will undergo an economic downturn -- if they're not already feeling some post-COVID fallout -- that will force a lot of decisions that ultimately impact people's lives.

As you evaluate your options, consider this: When Gallup conducted global research on customer relationships, we found that companies that successfully engage their business customers realize 63% lower customer attrition, 55% higher share of wallet and 50% higher productivity.

To get numbers like those, you have to be clear on who you exist for and consistently keep your brand promise to them, even if that commitment means changing how you deliver that promise.

J&J consistently delivered on its promise in decisions made both before and in response to the 1982 drug tampering episode:

"We believe our first responsibility is to the patients, doctors and nurses, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work and to the world community as well."

During times of disruption, your teams may have to find new ways to keep your brand promise, and alignment means everything -- one rogue team member with a conflicting message can undermine everyone else's work. But a team aligned around clear, consistent, committed strategies earns customers' trust for decades to come.

Right now, customers are watching your behavior -- and judging your values -- very closely. Even when the world feels safe again, they'll remember who came through for them. They'll remember who could be trusted. Your teams have the power to create experiences that may shape your company's image forever.

Even when the world feels safe again, they'll remember who came through for them.

So when you're envisioning the future, which you know might be more difficult than the present, think about who you really exist for. Think about the power of customer engagement and how you'll earn it with every decision you make. Get clear, consistent and committed as a team now, so you're ready for tomorrow, whatever it brings.

Pursue workplace and leadership practices that ensure you deliver on your brand promise:


Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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