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From Breakdown to Breakthrough: A Game Plan for Brands During Times of Crisis

From Breakdown to Breakthrough: A Game Plan for Brands During Times of Crisis

Marc Mathieu

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This piece first appeared as part of Salesforce’s Leading Through Change series. To get more tips on navigating change, read other articles in Leading Through Change.

It’s safe to say that I’ve encountered almost every kind of brand crisis during my career. 


When I worked for Coca-Cola in Asia during the late 1990s and early 2000s, we dealt with government regulations in Malaysia that threatened to ban our products. Later, I helped Coke make a comeback from a recall of 30 million bottles and cans in Belgium after a health scare escalated into mass hysteria. And, when I was CMO of Samsung Electronics America, we had to recover from the Galaxy Note 7 phone being recalled twice due to defective batteries.

All of those situations were big deals, but the current COVID-19 crisis is monumentally bigger. While most problems touch a small fraction of the population, this one is a global crisis. It marks the first time, aside from world wars, that a crisis touches our common humanity. We’re all trying to navigate a scary situation that’s impacting our families, our friends and our lives.

From Breakdown to Breakthrough

Albeit very different in nature, my experiences made me think about the role brands play during COVID-19. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that dealing with a crisis in the moment is often the “easy” part. It’s natural for brands to develop tunnel vision during crises. They focus all their efforts on solving the problem right in front of them.

But it’s crucial to think ahead, and I’ve learned that you can’t wait until you begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It needs to be built into your crisis response strategy up front. Otherwise, you risk making short-term decisions that may hurt your brand later.

I call this strategy “from breakdown to breakthrough.” It’s a plan to be better brands, businesses and people after a crisis is over. The vision is to be stronger 18 months later than you would have been if the crisis had not happened. It sounds ambitious, but trust me, it can be done. Here are five tips that can help you get there. 

Tip No. 1: Collaborate with Your Community and Turn Them into Allies

A strong community is an incredible and often underleveraged resource for brands. Every day at Salesforce, I see how our Trailblazers inspire and push us to do bigger and better things. As Andrew Blau and Peter Schwartz note in the Salesforce and Deloitte guide, The World Remade by COVID-19, “remarkable times call for remarkable collaboration.”

During the Galaxy Note 7 situation at Samsung, the simplest but probably most important decision we made was to reach out to all customers who had purchased a defective phone and returned it. Our very humble message was, “We understand if you don’t want to hear from us ever again. But if you’d like to be informed as we investigate what went wrong and what we are going to do about it, raise your hand and we’ll keep you posted.”

Tens of thousands of people raised their (virtual) hands. This formed the group with whom we shared the results of our internal audits as they progressed. And there was an online and in-person collective invited to our “Root Cause” event with company leadership once we found out exactly what had happened.

Members of this hand-raisers group could ask us any questions, and we were transparent with our responses. We really trusted them, and they trusted us. We kept them engaged throughout the 12 months of preparation for a new phone launch. When the word on the street was that the Note brand was dead, these people said: “No, we love our Note. We want it back.”

It is incredible how collaboration and support from a community of fans helps push you forward during a difficult period. Whatever we were doing, we were doing it for these fans. And at a time when our brains were telling us to lay low during a rough patch, we acted boldly and bravely because the fans deserved it. 

Tip No. 2: Exceed Customer Expectations in Unexpected Ways

Today, you must surpass customer expectations if you want to be noticed. This remains true during crises and can easily be done if a brand truly listens, understands and cares for the people it serves. 

Let me walk you through a personal example: To stay healthy during quarantine, I wanted to buy a rowing machine, so I called WaterRower, an American brand renowned for its design, ethos and customer service. I reached an answering service, but to my surprise, a rep called me back before I hung up. They didn’t have what I wanted for immediate shipment but connected me with a trusted distributor in my area. That person took the time to locate the product and speak with their delivery service. The rower arrived at my home in Los Angeles before noon that same morning. I could start getting back in shape right away.

Both the brand and the distributor made their mark at a time when I just wanted something to make me feel better. Did I need the rower that badly? Of course not. But the way they helped me throughout the value chain was amazing. They built a human connection at that moment that will stick with me—and with all the people I have told about this experience.

Other fitness brands are also stepping up. I’ve been impressed with the way Under Armour’s 30-day Healthy at Home fitness challenge and Adidas’s #HomeTeam campaign have reached out to motivate people to stay fit during the pandemic.

It’s something we all can learn from. 

Tip No. 3: Listen for Truth That Matters

In times of crisis, a “chaordic” organization—a mix of chaos and order—often replaces established structures and processes. Believe it or not, this is often for the best.

One thing that is often missing for the new C-suite is a real-time pulse: a customer-driven single source of truth for the brand. What do your customers and critical stakeholders think, and how do their sentiments evolve daily? Most importantly, how does it guide your decision-making? 

Sharing those data-driven insights in a verbal morning briefing with your crisis management team can make a huge difference. They can prioritize which actions to take and also see what’s working and what’s not. I’ve often found this daily pulse is missing, and it’s a huge differentiator between the brands that recover fast and the ones that keep lagging. It’s also a great benchmark to compare your progress to the other brands that matter to your customers. Because in the end, that’s the only truth that matters. 

Tip No. 4: Plan for the New Normal—And Start the Transformation Now

Establishing trusted relationships can help a business rebuild after the dust settles. Still, you can’t just come back with business as usual.

Engineering Coca-Cola’s comeback after being away from the shelves (and the lives) of Belgian people for weeks was no small feat. We had to surprise and delight them when they went to stores, took a walk on the street or lounged at the beach. It couldn’t be business as usual.

It was the same at Samsung. The first U.S. commercial to air after the recall couldn’t be tone-deaf. It simply showed a group of teenagers in the streets of New York City interacting with different Samsung technologies at the end of a summer day. The products weren’t in your face. We didn’t try to persuade anyone to buy anything. We just wanted the wider community to look and say, “Oh, that’s lovable,” and get familiar with the brand again.

When businesses return to “normal” after COVID-19, the impulse will be to plead, “Buy me! I have a quarter to deliver my quota. Help me, I need to catch up.” The brands that stand out will be the ones that understand this new world and that a new normal requires a new vision and a new beginning. It’s time to think with customer lifetime value in mind.

That strategic work needs to begin now. And it can’t be driven by the same people focused on the present. Identify a few members on your team and give them the budget—and the reins—to work solely on post-crisis projects. This is essential because by the time COVID-19 is “resolved,” your core staff is going to be exhausted. It will be difficult to make another huge pivot when the bulk of your workforce is burned out.

Think of it like a wild duck formation. These birds can fly long distances because they take turns leading the way, with different members of the flock coming to the front when their colleagues get tired. Right now, businesses are focused on the front of their team’s flock. Identify a few in the back of the formation and tell them, “You’re going to be next—get ready for it.”

They’re the ones who will pull the organization forward later.

Tip No. 5: Turn Your Values into Value and Build Trust

Brand values are not something that should collect dust on your marketing bookshelves—especially during a crisis. They should guide your daily problem-solving. Use them to inform every decision you make and turn them into meaningful value.

I have always argued that brands need to follow a higher purpose—an iconic mission that ladders up from the product and brand. This is the time, more than ever, for brands to stand tall as beacons of hope for a better tomorrow. They must serve and create value for their employees, their immediate communities and the world at large. Not as marketers or business leaders, but as human beings.

While some brands seem to be missing in action, many are showing the way. “Coronavirus will launch a new era of responsible consumption,” Unilever CEO Alan Jope told CNBC. “We’re trying to make sure our brands meet the needs of society and make positive contributions back to communities or the environment. We’ll need to adjust our innovation programs, our marketing plans and our brand portfolio to reflect the realities around us.”

Every contribution matters and the spectrum is vast. Look at how Mattel is helping to manufacture facemasks and other personal protective equipment to help fight the physical war against the virus. It’s also created a virtual playroom encompassing all of its brands, so children can #KeepPlaying.

Brands that engage and act now are building a unique trust capital that will live long after the crisis and won’t be forgotten.

We’re living in a unique time in history. Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen next or what the timeline is. But we are a group of human beings all trying to get through this together while helping others do the same. We must tap into our deepest humanity whenever, wherever and however we can. This is a time to go from breakdown to breakthrough. It’s a time for brands to make history and help create a new future.

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Marc Mathieu is senior vice president, strategic customer transformation and innovation at Salesforce.