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Stay true

Staying True in the New Normal: Brands who really know their character can respond with speed and authenticity


We’re just kicking off our second week of the new normal: working from home, social distancing, shelter-in-place, non-stop Zoom meetings. It’s been more weird than wonderful, and mildly exhausting as we all grapple personally and professionally to comprehend what is happening and how to prepare for an uncertain future.

Many brands are doing their best to respond to the crisis, to reassure their customers, and to make sure that they have an economic future once this crisis is over. The past week provided a deluge of CEO emails and an abundance of brands adapting to the rapidly changing reality of a global pandemic. The messages and responses were all over the map. While some fell flat — if not completely tone deaf — other brands rose to the occasion with authenticity and ingenuity.

The brands that have been most successful have done so because they know who they are, so their response times have been swift and their messages and actions seem genuine, not self-serving. I have three favorites (from the past week).

Time Out
“Time Out” adopted “Time In” branding. Brilliant.

Time Out In
Time Out In

Louis Vuitton
Louis Vuitton owner LVMH will use its perfume production lines to start making hand sanitizer to protect people against the coronavirus outbreak. This is a significant manufacturing pivot — and one we’re seeing more of by craft breweries and distilleries in the US. And they are giving it away.

Shedd Aquarium, Chicago
Who let the penguins out? The aquarium is letting the penguins explore various exhibits, providing us with an inside-view of the space while on lockdown.

Penguins GIF
Penguins GIF

No doubt, these brands have advantages that not all companies can offer in these moments. But all companies should know who they are and how to respond in ways that are authentic to their identity, their culture, and their values.

VSA Partners is a brand and design firm. We have a brand strategy framework we call The Brand Character model. The word “character” has never mattered more. Character is a summation of all the different aspects a corporation and their employees embody: what you stand for, why you exist, what you value, how you live those values, and ultimately how you behave — especially in times of trial. This self-understanding is what differentiates brands and enables — even empowers — companies to act with confidence and courage in good times and bad.

Which leads me to my final “best of” observation this past week: my VSA Partners colleagues. We all had a day to process the new work-from-home mandate, grab our stuff in the office and start working remotely. Zoom has been the hub for meeting, connecting, collaborating, and socializing. We’ve been able to peek inside one another’s homes. We’ve met new pets. Seen spouses and partners in the background. Learned (and shared) before unknown Zoom features like Virtual Background. And we’re still exploring our new normal and trying new things like virtual bingo social hours, an all company weekly check-in via Zoom, and tinkering with the interactive features of collaboration and video tools as we discover how to accomplish things through a computer screen that we have mastered in person. And while VSA doesn’t have posters of our values smattered around our office walls, we all seem to have a very clear understanding of what we collectively stand for: Partnership. Partnership means we care about our clients and each other’s well-being. We’re empathetic to the challenges we individually may face, be it childcare or space or just getting used to being at home working all day with our partners, spouses, and families. And yet we’re also still focused on making an impact on the day’s task-at-hand, and doing so with the same drive and focus on quality we have when we’re collaborating in person. I have never been more proud of our character.

Stay true.

Hugh Allspaugh, Associate Partner, Strategy

Hugh joined VSA Partners in 2014 to lead the firm’s B2B Brand and Marketing Strategy discipline, bringing over 30 years of experience to a range of clients, including CME Group, First Data, Google, Morningstar, Northern Trust, Sappi, and Trading Technologies. Throughout his career, Hugh has worked for industry-leading agencies in New York City, London, Los Angeles, Portland, and Chicago on both B2B and B2C brands, including American Express, BP Fuels, CDW, Grant Thornton, HSBC, Kimberly Clark, SJ Johnson, Sears, Valspar, Western Union, and Zebra Technologies.