Brand Stretch = Brand Survival. How can brands navigate and survive Covid-19, and even thrive and flourish?

The extraordinary, unprecedented circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic have called for us all – citizens, businesses and governments – to respond and react with bold, innovative and agile thinking. In fact, we are witnessing an amazing amount of “stretch” from brands: for some it’s a challenge, putting a huge demand on capacity and resources and pushing them beyond their limit; for others it’s a real opportunity to stimulate and maximise their talents, skills and abilities.

Public and private resources are stretched thin in an effort to support national healthcare systems, and many companies are struggling to survive the global economic slowdown. But we are also seeing local and global capabilities and expertise flexed and amplified to answer the needs of the now with generosity, speed and a great deal of ingenuity.

Indeed, these testing times are an opportunity for brands to lift the lid and look under the bonnet, to see what skills or manufacturing capabilities they have available that can be leveraged to deliver something new, different, desirable and necessary. But these efforts need to feel genuine, credible and have a true sense of purpose to avoid missing the mark or coming across as point-scoring marketing schemes.

The doctor wears Prada.

The concept of stretch isn’t new to brands. In the past, we’ve seen brands pivot in response to unique and challenging socio-economic circumstances, to meet current demands and ensure their own survival. So when British fashion brand Barbour announced its production lines would be switching from wax jackets to medical gowns, it brought back patriotic memories of when, during both world wars, its factories were turned over to make military garments. History makes the stretch almost a part of the brand’s DNA.

This stretch is a logical and credible one. That’s why the majority of fashion’s big names have converted parts of their factories to produce protective clothing and surgical masks for healthcare workers on the frontline.

Moving from booze and perfume to hand sanitiser follows a similar rationale. Both industries already traditionally feature its star ingredient, alcohol. So it makes sense for luxury giant LVMH to give the green light for its factories – which normally produce perfumes and cosmetics for the likes of Christian Dior and Givenchy – to manufacture hand sanitisers, and for distilleries and breweries such as Brewdog to do the same.

Racing to help.

A number of sports brands have also started making and donating Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to medical staff but, instead of leveraging tradition, they have chosen to adapt and repurpose the modern techniques and technical fibres and plastics used for their most innovative designs.

For example, Nike has found a way to produce face shields from the collar padding of shoes, clothing cords, and the thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) used in its signature Nike Air soles.

Before investing in the switch, Nike ensured that it would come from a credible and relevant place, one that adds to its production ecosystem, rather than subtracting from it, by asking the question:

“How do we solve this [PPE shortage] problem
with the supply chain we have, with materials we’re
familiar with, and with the tools we have?”

Michael Donaghu, VP for Innovation at Nike (cited here)

Similarly, Adidas has extended its collaboration with tech company Carbon to 3D print PPE that can be sanitised and reused. Their face shields are made using the same elastomeric polyurethane material and Digital Light Synthesis technology co-created and applied to Futurecraft 4D sneakers.

Cross-industry collaboration has also proven a successful way for brands to extend and enhance their capabilities and help to fight the pandemic. In response to the UK Government’s request for more medical ventilators, a group of technology and engineering companies including McLaren, Airbus, Thales and Rolls-Royce formed a consortium – Ventilator Challenge UK – to pool resources, expertise and machinery to develop a successful design based on existing technologies, which can be assembled from materials and parts in current production.

The power of purpose.  

Brand stretch is more than a Coronavirus phenomenon. Classic cases through the years include Nokia (which went from rubber boots to mobile phones), Caterpillar (which added a clothing range to its construction machinery portfolio) and Yamaha (which used its metallurgy expertise to expand from musical instruments to motorbikes).

Stretching – be it the result of a crisis, or as part of “normal” brand evolution – is a way for brands to credibly evolve in line with their consumer’s lifestyles and needs. For example, Crayola recently elevated its crayon range from arts and crafts to make-up, helping to nurture its consumers’ creativity and self-expression from kids colouring in to grown-ups’ cosmetics.

Another recent stretch with synergy is LifePaint by Volvo cars, a spray-on reflective paint that is invisible in ordinary daylight, but glows brightly in the glare of headlights, helping to make cyclists more visible to drivers and prevent accidents. In other words, one of the key pillars of the brand – safety – becomes the trigger and inspiration for the car manufacturer to move into and extend its protection to other road users.

Keeping up with the times is essential to the survival of brands, and even agencies. During and beyond the pandemic, it’s vital to be brave, innovative and boldly malleable. Being prepared for and open to change will make it possible to not only survive the months and years ahead, but also to help identify new opportunities to thrive, flourish and continue to resonate and engage with today’s and tomorrow’s consumers.

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