Times of crisis—such as, say, a pandemic year with one doozy of an election added in—often bare out the fundamentals about who and what we are, but less often do they result in real transformative change in how we act in society. We humans are the result of billions of years of evolution, and our behavior is hard to move in any direction. We’re hardwired more so than we realize.
Yet, as we close out this difficult year, local business owners are learning to redeem what is salvageable in the face of so much hardship. Shutdowns. Distancing. Delivery system crises. Lord have mercy! How to cope? The question is yet to be fully answered. But despite it all, there are some lessons we can integrate from this period, even good pieces of wisdom regarding place branding that we can apply to this very upcoming holiday season, as well as to the future more generally.
Lesson One: Marketing and Business Operations are Inextricably Connected
As a 25-year marketer and entrepreneur (with the scars to show for it!), one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that we can never separate marketing from business operations. Marketing is not merely a catchy slogan or two. Marketing is a representation of why you do what you do, what you are as a business, and how you bring value you bring to your customers.
The why refers to problems that you offer to solve to make customers lives better. The what is what you do to solve their issues and help them overcome pain points. And the how is the way you deliver on your brand promise, your secret sauce, so to speak, that helps you meet and exceed customer expectations.
But if there’s a disconnect between your brand promise and how you deliver it, it becomes essential to undertake a strategic effort to realign them. This means your marketing operations will require change.
As we all adjust to a new normal—curb-side pickup, a renewed focus on e-commerce, entertaining dining guests in what used to be your parking lot—brands must be careful not to allow new means of delivery to disconnect them from the brand promise. Clearly aligning this new circumstance with your story will be essential.
Lesson Two: Those Who Take Action, Win
There are plenty of means by which to evolve your brand story and business operations in a consistent manner, and in a way that is consistent with customer expectation.
Troubled times, however, may call for drastic measures.
One of the key lessons learned for brick-and-mortar retailers during 2020 was regarding the importance of being nimble. Whether it’s arbitrary new business regulations handed down to you, or the simple reality that customers have different levels of expectation as they go about their shopping, there is a growing need to change how business is done—and a subsequent need to adjust messaging.
This pertains to individual businesses, landlords and property owners, as well as those who manage and govern retail districts. Recount some of the changes we’re already seeing, many of which impact directly the nature of the setting in which shopping is done. Streets have become public gathering areas. Pedestrian amenities must allow for safe distancing. And, suddenly, drive-in theaters have returned! Even the small things like free hand sanitizer make a difference.
Regardless what interventions you take, the key here is simple: take action! Doing nothing in times of change all but guarantees a loss of competitive advantage. Go ahead and take some chances. Experiment. Try, fail, adjust, try again… it’s the only way to succeed!
Those businesses, downtowns, shopping centers, and retail districts that have taken the risks are positioned to win. Those who choose the status quo are awaiting a return to normal that may never—let’s face it—actually materialize.
Lesson Three: Place Matters
As a result of recent changes, an existential crisis has arisen for many downtown retailers and organizations who manage retail districts. In such a context, place branding matters now more than ever.
People are, at root, social animals. There is an innate need to interact, to be among others, to people watch, and participate in social activity. How and where that activity takes place may change, but the core desire has not.
This produces the need to observe our recent lessons closely. Retailers and brands must test new approaches. Evolve and transform, so as to ensure your brand story remerges in a manner consistent with your business operations.
This is as true for districts and retail centers as it is for each individual store. Just as every business has a brand promise, so too does the place that business calls home have a story, a value proposition, an expectation on behalf of the consumer that draws them to a brand in the first place. In times of crisis, that brand and the management of the place where consumers go, must transform accordingly.
Just as individual businesses must adjust in the face of change while still finding ways to bring people to their brick-and-mortar locations, so too must you act as a place manager. And those businesses, place managers, and municipalities who take fast action to align marketing and business operations while telling a compelling story and delivering on a brand promise? They are poised to win.
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