Using brand aligned experience to weather the COVID storm

Tabitha - 28 th June 2021

We often refer to a brand as a guiding light. Within any business, a strong brand offers guidance, it informs decisions from acquisitions through to the colleague exit process. It is the responsibility of a brand to guide behaviours; to inform naming, product, pricing and communication strategies, and one of its most crucial responsibilities is to guide the colleague and customer experience. Ultimately, having and utilising a strong brand means that businesses are better equipped to deal with changes, in both the long and short term.

The past year has acted as a tremendous test on brands and the leisure and hospitality industries have been bearing the brunt of the unpredictable and, for many, extremely turbulent journey. The brands who seem to have made their way through the storm, and possibly even come out stronger on the other side, are those which have led from the top down, with a strong purpose, and importantly, an aligned experience.

Using specific brand examples and our own recent personal experiences, we can see how a strong brand and an aligned experience, has enabled some businesses to thrive, whilst others may be left struggling.

1. No clear brand, no opportunity for alignment
Whilst the majority of big brands have a vision, they do not always have a clear one. A brand vision is not just a page on the ‘about us’ section of a website, it is the space a brand occupies in consumers’ minds. Marks and Spencer are a brand that despite over a century of existence, their vision and what they stand for is unclear and confusing. We often run a warm up with consumers in research and ask them to tell us what different brands stand for in their minds. Using supermarkets we hear of Waitrose representing quality or Aldi representing value. If we ever use Marks and Spencer we never get a clear answer.

Their recent rollout of new online clothing brands, introduced with the aim of making their clothing offer more relevant, but instead appearing to be attempting to appeal to the masses, is an example of their need for clearer brand guidance. They seem to be doing what competitors are doing instead of looking at their audience and what they truly stand for before making decisions. Their recent reaction to the Colin/ Cuthbert debate illustrated that they did not have a clear brand in place to guide their response, and COVID restrictions have further illustrated their need for consistency in approach, with complaints and confusion regarding their new ‘book and shop’ system, an online slot booking service that leaves those unaware stood waiting to get in-store in a separate queue. Lockdown restrictions have lead to them reporting a £201m loss this financial year, which equates to a 31.5% drop in total revenue, with clothing and home sales falling 31%, despite the rise of online sales. Their actions call for a strong brand which they can use to guide decisions and behaviours both internally and externally. This is especially important as they appear to be making the move towards online sales, as they have reported that they will be reducing their number of stores from 250 to around 180.

Marks and Spencer-1
2. Strong brand and purpose, weak brand alignment
Some brands may feel they have made it with a motivating and inspiring brand vision and brand values that should clearly guide behaviours, but fall short when it comes to ensuring the colleague and customer experience are aligned to that brand. An example of this is Uber. On many occasions we have used Uber as an example of a brand that has a clear vision and purpose and an experience aligned to that vision. They were the disruptors in the taxi industry; they made everything simple for their customers and from ordering on the app down to being dropped off at the destination they are fast and efficient and always great value. However, as the brand has started to grow and its product offering has moved on from its core, taxis, its brand alignment is weakening.

UberEATS has received complaints due to its confusing app, misleading offers and poor customer service, all of which are elements that Uber taxis were known to be good at and a customer would expect more of from the brand. Lockdown has been a prime opportunity for food delivery brands, and whilst UberEATS app downloads did increase in line with competitors, it is competing in a much more crowded market than it was pre-lockdown. Emerging local brands such as Foodstuff who have a strong purpose (supporting local, independent restaurants with zero emissions) and alignment (delivery via bicycles) are on the rise, so it will be interesting to see if UberEATS’ growth is sustained as we emerge out of lockdown.

3. Strong brand, aligned colleague and customer experience
To get here, it takes a strong brand, developed through insight, and it takes using that brand to guide the experience. Putting it simply, when making any decision, the brand should be referred to for guidance and if done well, it will occupy the desired space in consumers’ minds.

National Trust are a great of an example of a strong brand with an aligned experience. Throughout COVID, they have been reassuring, explained business decisions to their members and colleagues and they guided people through the additional measures in place so that they could still make the most of the experience. For many, COVID restrictions have not prevented enjoyment of National Trust sites as bookings make them less crowded, there is subtle signage in place, well informed staff and ease of social distancing. When at a National trust site, you can sense their pride for persevering beautiful locations and you feel welcome the moment you walk in.

They have recently announced that they will be creating Manchester’s first High Line along the currently disused Castlefield viaduct. This move has been praised by commentators as the proposed High Line walk fits seamlessly with its surrounding and the deep history of the area. The High Line shows that the National Trust are able to expand their brand beyond the traditional as they move into more urban areas, all whilst staying true to their core- custodianship. The National Trust have remained consistent in their approach and true to their brand and as a result, despite a great loss of income over lockdown, their visitor numbers are back on the rise.

National Trust
Whilst a brand aligned experience is not a magic, money growing machine, the past year has shown that there are many factors that can disrupt businesses. Having this strong brand and aligned experience can act as a vital tool to navigate through hard times and can be the reassuring guiding light that many brands would benefit from in both the long and the short term.

Tabitha is a Senior CX Strategist who loves to immerse herself in brands and facilitate research to provide clients with brilliant, customer focused insight. Having made the leap from the world of law, she utilises her research and strategy skills across a wide range of sectors. Alongside work, she enjoys horse riding and loves to travel whenever she gets the chance. 
Find out more about Tabitha