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Evolving your brand culture during times of crisis

By ATB Financial 14 September 2020 6 min read

The year 2020 will be a defining one for brands with purpose-driven cultures. With unrelenting waves of crisis, 2020 has deeply tested brands and forever changed how work gets done, how employees engage and what customers demand of them. From the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession to widespread calls for social equity, the last year has pushed brands like no other.

And, there is a lot at stake. The 2020 Consumer Culture Report from 5WPR found that 83 per cent of millennials feel strongly the brands they buy from should align with their values, and 76 per cent want to see CEOs actively using their platform to address important social issues. Accenture has found that 43 per cent of customers will walk away from a brand when disappointed by its words or actions on social issues.

“This will have a lasting impact on brand cultures in a number of ways,” says Tara Lockyer, chief people officer with ATB. “Across all industries, people and companies are figuring out how to work through all of this. It is uncharted territory and no one has history to look back on for lessons. We’re all going into this darkness at the same time.”

Brands with purpose-driven cultures are being called on during this challenging time and have an opportunity to demonstrate and elevate their purpose, says Accenture. But for these organizations, this year means evolution—possibly even an uncomfortable one—to navigate both the short and long-term uncertainties. While different for each organization, the evolution involves increased transparency, greater accountability, and agility and authenticity with employees and customers.

Why must brands evolve alongside cultural shifts?

“Brand is the personality of the organization,” says Lockyer. “It is an organic quality so it grows and learns.”

When the larger social and cultural context a brand exists in is demanding that it adapt, brand values and culture must do so continuously to connect with both employees and customers. To make a purposeful, positive contribution, a brand must stay relevant to these groups.

During the COVID-19 crisis, when the protests against police injustice rose to national awareness, ATB faced its own small evolution. Employees demanded a response on the issue from ATB’s senior leadership, says Lockyer. “The employees expected us to have a stance on a very sensitive subject and to do that quickly. It tested our brand and culture a bit and permeated conversations about our diversity and inclusion. We learned we need to listen more. We had some bias and some challenges we still needed to work through.”

Lockyer says the process pushed ATB’s transparency far and fast. “We’ve learned, adapted and are still growing. We’ll be different on the other side, but definitely stronger,” she says.

Responding to employee needs is critical to building and maintaining a strong brand. And it pays off. A PwC survey of business leaders found that millennial employees are 5.3 times more likely to stay at an organization when they have a strong connection to its purpose.

Furthermore, times of crisis can drive evolution through innovation. According to Accenture, “Innovation—where creativity and unmet needs meet—always comes to the fore in times like these. It’s a well-known part of design history that tackling edge cases is where creativity frequently comes up with mass-market solutions. Leaders apply it to anticipate the changing patterns in consumption that will stick.”

Brands that trust their value-driven culture and don’t shy away from tough questions from employees and embrace opportunities for innovation position themselves for greater growth, relevance and evolution during times of crisis.

How to prioritize culture during a crisis

Lockyer says that during these times of turmoil, ATB turned to the foundations of its brand culture as a way forward. This meant doing the right thing and not trying to take advantage of the situation.

“It wasn’t about protecting the business at all costs. Instead, our principle was to do the right thing by the team members and the customers. Trust that goodness will come from that,” she says. “Others are out there saving lives. Our job is to save livelihoods, so let's focus on that.”

For brands who are new to trusting their brand cultures, Lockyer recommends senior leadership spend time identifying where the company adds value to society. “What is your big why? Where can you contribute? As Simon Sinek would say, you have to answer your why,” she says.

Shepherding a brand through a culture evolution

While trusting your brand’s culture during crisis is important, ensuring it navigates any growth it needs to do to succeed is paramount. Lockyer advises that brands facing a culture evolution must start by acknowledging that it’s happening and not try to ignore what is obviously underway.

Next, it’s time to listen and ask a lot of questions.

“Listening really is the big one. You have to sense and scan both what’s happening internally and externally,” she says.

Then, the leadership team must chart a path forward that is true and authentic to who the organization is.

“Authenticity is key. If you fake it, people are going to see right through it,” she says. This step also involves being open and willing to course-correct as a brand—even if it takes a few tries. Being flexible and agile during an adaptation will benefit an organization tremendously.

If a mistake is made in the process of pivoting, Lockyer says be sure to acknowledge it and move on.

“Don’t try and hide it. People understand and are willing to accept mistakes as long as you acknowledge them. It is hard to get everything right at the speed we’re asked to these days and people recognize that,” she says.

Once an organization has its plan in place—be it a response to a crisis, or new policies and procedures—Lockyer says leadership must enable a process for independent decision making throughout the organization. “There is so much that has to be done during a response. One team can’t pull it all off.”

For example, during ATB’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, the senior leadership team pulled together working teams to do risk assessments and develop action plans for the whole organization. These teams were guided by core principles of keeping employees and customers safe, staying connected with the community and leaning into the strength of the business. This approach allowed for a distributed network of problem solvers who could make their own decisions to get things done. It allowed for a rapid and effective response to the pandemic, ensuring employees transitioned seamlessly to work from home and customers quickly got the information and support they needed.

The last key part of guiding an organization through a brand evolution is prioritizing the health and wellness of employees, says Lockyer.

“People are going through a lot of personal challenges in the current environment. We need to make sure individuals are healthy and well first.”

To support employees, ATB has doubled down on giving people access to resources for support. Lockyer says they’re also doing monthly pulse checks to make sure employees are doing better. When the results of these checks aren’t trending in the right direction, she and her team figure out other solutions to support the employees and their leaders.

Lockyer says organizations that are purpose-driven will fare much better through demanding times like what we’ve seen in 2020. For ATB, she says it’s pushed the whole organization forward in a very positive way.

“We naturally played to our culture. We took care of our people—our own team members or our customers—first, which is core to us. When we’re through this, we will have a greater resiliency and we’ll have it in spades,” she says.

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