Miki Hirasawa Ashton, Regional Brand, Communications & Development Leader Corporate Affairs Middle East & Africa Region at 3M, on what a successful brand is today.
We made it. 2021 opened its door to a new decade of promise and optimism. The UAE is on friendly terms with Israel and Qatar, probing Mars, and Expo is back on the horizon. All the grand plans we had for 2020 – creative campaigns, innovative ways to boost brand reputation and uplift sales – we can kick off now, one year on, a bit later than promised. The Middle East economy will bounce back like it has before, especially because the UAE has led internationally in testing and now vaccinations.
British naturalist Charles Darwin said that “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent that will survive, but those that can best manage change.” The same can be true for brands. 2020 was an agility test in all aspects, with technology playing a major role in a company’s ability to adapt to remote working and maintain a grip on normalcy through increased video calls and wellness seminar overload. In all this disruption, marcomms professionals have been able to learn valuable lessons and define new ways of working for the coming decade. As an industry, we reclaimed our vocation through purpose as crisis redefined the necessity for brand communications.
This partnership helps bridge the content gap between social platforms and potential customers. Let’s say social platform X wants to sell its offering to brand Y. Instead of saying we can do this ad format, we can show them what their brand would look like on the platform. So, in this case, our partnership allows us to jointly pitch with the social platform to large brands and visually showcase all the different ways in which the brand can appear on this platform.
COVID-19 brought the opportunity for the influence of individuals to shine, with their critical ability to transform economies and societies through actions and observations. Consumers have made it eminently clear they have high expectations for brands; they need solutions they can trust. Brands that have consciously humanized their reclaimed sense of self to appeal to their audiences have steered through uncharted waters more easily than others. The marketer has become a beacon in communicating brand purpose to those internal and external to the company, creating avenues for engagement along the way and inspiring brands to take action.
Beyond COVID-19, 2020 was also a year of solidarity where brands in the Middle East leapt to support Beirut with speed and impact, delivering funds and supplies. This was one of many brand actions defined in 2020 for the coming decade. For a brand like 3M, where values of science and safety are prominent, taking action to protect those in need carried a moral urgency.
A license to lead
A recent Oxford-GlobeScan survey points towards internal communications taking center stage during the pandemic, well ahead of industry and government relations, and this is hardly a surprise. This focus is a knee-jerk reaction to 2020’s “truce for truth,” an issue largely carried out by individuals given the opportunity to broadcast opinions on digital platforms.
One way for corporations to address this is through in-house communication to strengthen purpose and the tenets of brand values. Most brands have recently focused on their own people and communities in order to maintain strong, direct connections between colleagues. Working remotely, or at least a hybrid model, is something that will gather pace throughout the 20s as brands redefine workplace culture with communications continuing to provide the connective tissue.
3M’s State of Science Index highlighted the “license to lead” that individuals have given busi- nesses, 60% of respondents trusting them to plan against future pandemics and 48% expecting brands to take care of retraining and upskilling to meet new demands.
Employee engagement is a two-way street, facilitated in no small part by an individual’s trust in their company leadership. This trend is not a surprise, with employees looking for safety in the arms of competent and ethical entities, as highlighted in the 2021 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer. The need to reimagine the function of internal communications has forced many corporate communications professionals to perform feats of agility on shoestring budgets through sheer necessity, redefining a playbook which will be in a constant redrafting state throughout 2021. In turn, nurturing employees through constant engagement translates into employee advocacy; so, brands are now looking to build ownable narratives everyone can be proud of, purpose-driven at the core and delivering social justice where it matters most.
Creativity tends to peak in adversity but can be limited if we are not open to the idea that we can work more efficiently if we go beyond our own corporate world. Once a brand’s values are clear, it is easier to hold hands with horizontal or vertical partners in order to enhance the credentials of both parties. Why go it alone when a government entity or charity is looking to empower the same stakeholder group? 2020 taught us how resilient we can be and how fast we can problem-solve.
At the onset of the pandemic, Ford began producing an all-new powered air purifying respi- rator design, developed in collaboration with 3M. This personal protective equipment helps protect healthcare professionals fighting COVID-19 on the frontline and was designed and delivered in just four weeks. Vaccination is another good example, where we saw AstraZeneca and Oxford pairing up to deliver potentially the most accessible medical protection for developing countries.
This is also true when it comes to solving other social issues. Innovative, confident brands reach out to government or NGOs to collaborate and solve inequity together. Initiatives like 3M’s Science at Home with the KHDA brings kids closer to science as they experience the joys of STEM innovation and discovery when the classroom is closed. The key to brands’ winning in the 20s is exploring flexible yet strategic partnerships with leeway for improvisation and swiftness to maintain relevance. Most recently, Mike Roman, 3M CEO, confirmed 3M’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goal ambition led by the UN Global Compact.
Lest we forget the tools that made it all possible, COVID-19 ushered in a digital transformation at speeds nobody could have foretold. Incremental change today is truly exponential compared with the recent past, and expectations continue to rise. Tech has enabled the events industry to reinvent itself with the physical event now seen as an optional extra.
Though there has been many discussions around webinar fatigue, these live events are there to stay and will continue to evolve. As a marketer groomed in the 90s and on the shopping channel, I am truly looking forward to the launch of Amazon Live in the Middle East. This will change the entire customer experience again.
Zoom’s share price went through the roof precisely because it has, amongst other webinar providers, allowed brands such as MSL Access in Middle East & Africa to give birth to new insights platforms delivering valuable cross-industry conversations previously unheard of. Closed networks and intranets have risen in terms of influence as more employees stay longer in front of screens digesting brand messages.
Winning in the 20s
Moving forward with learnings from last year and new baselines in place, as Kotler said, we must acknowledge the era of consumer empowerment led by abundant information and networked communities. A brand must have a clear brand-positioning-differentiation-integrity standing in the first instance. Inauthentic brands will increasingly find it difficult to survive when word-of-mouth becomes the de-facto advertising medium and consumers rely more on acquaintances in their community than other, more brand-controllable channels.
As brand guardians, rather than big brother, we prefer to place a comforting arm around our community of consumers. However, we can empower them to do our marketing for us by remaining credible and true to our brand’s purpose. We live in the era of horizontal communication where vertical control is less effective. More than ever, honesty, ethics, and authenticity are winning – evergreen values that any brand must master.
This article was published in Communicate’s Q1 edition. You can access the full magazine here.