Charles Vallance
May 25, 2020

Give me a compass, not a crystal ball

Don't obsess about what's going to change; think about the big ideas that remain stable.

Give me a compass, not a crystal ball

Things become axiomatic because, broadly, they're true.

A stitch in time frequently does save nine. Many a true word is, indeed, often spoken in jest. Clichés such as these stick because they are reliable, if imperfect, guides.

Of the many clichés doing the rounds at the moment, one that seems to be bearing up well to overuse is the old saying that a crisis "brings out the best and worst in us". Time and again, we see evidence of this essential truth – a truth that applies equally to brands as it does to people.

There is a clue within the wording that provides an important protection against the biggest danger facing brands during the crisis, which is to overestimate how much Covid-19 will change the way your brand should behave. I say this because, although the virus is undoubtedly having a massive impact on behaviours and attitudes, these impacts don't alter the fundamentals for a brand.

Perhaps the biggest fundamental to consider is that people don't really change, as Bill Bernbach memorably observed: "It took millions of years for man's instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary… a communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive desire to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own."

In a crisis, it is easy to forget the inherently long-term nature of brand-building and to get moved around by the headwinds rather than the tide. 

Jeff Bezos is another marketing titan who reminds us of this point. In one of his most famous quotes, he contrasts the frequency with which he gets asked "What's going to change in the next 10 years" with the scarcity of how often he's asked "What's not going to change?". His conclusion is simple: "I submit to you that the second question is actually the more important of the two – because you can build a business strategy around things that are stable in time." You can build a brand strategy around them as well.

Obsessing about what is going to change is not only less revealing, it is also more complicated and thus more likely to get you to the wrong answers. According to Bezos, one of the advantages of asking what's not going to change is that it's a far easier question to answer: "When you identify those big ideas that are stable in time, they're usually customer needs. You don't have to do a lot of research. These things are so big and so fundamental – you know it."

The implications are clear. While the effects of Covid-19 will be serious and lasting, people and their needs will fundamentally remain the same. So will the brands that succeed. This is not, however, an argument for stasis. Far from it. To paraphrase the old adage I quoted earlier, every brand can use the crisis to bring out the best in themselves and drive out the worst.

The point to highlight, the clue I mentioned lurking in the wording, is that the answer does not lie outside the brand, it lies within. We need to "bring it out", not graft it on. This is not a time for grandstanding or superficial gestures. This is a time for brands to dig deep into themselves and latch on to what they do best. What they have always done best. They need to be a heightened version of themselves, not a retrofitted post-Covid identikit slapped on from the outside.

I could mention a few VCCP client examples of heightened brand permanence, but that would look like favouritism. So, instead, I'll use the updated Budweiser "Wassup" ad to illustrate the point. This is an ad that is so old, it first ran in the last millennium, but it's as true today as it was back then. Bud is, was and always will be about the idiosyncrasies and occasional profundities of true camaraderie. Of course, the updated ad needs the voiceover tweaking to reflect the new socially distanced context, but the overall truth of the message remains the same as when the ad originally aired back in 1999. Moreover, it will remain the same if we fast-forward to 2041. Or 2062.

When the waters are choppy, you don't need a crystal ball. You need a compass. A compass not only guides you forward, most importantly it tells you where you've come from. This is the only way to plan a course and safely reach your destination. 

Charles Vallance is founding partner and chairman at VCCP (@TheBrandedGent).

Campaign UK

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