A Brand Stimulus Program

2009 need not be the year of treading or shipping water that everyone fears.

Admittedly, there will be a need to rethink operations and strategies enterprise-wide but, as you preview these plans, take an honest look at your brand, marketing, and communications. They have never been more integral to your business hopes of growth and innovation than at this moment.

In the spirit of New Year resolutions, Infinia offers this short list of recommendations to address and answer specific brand challenges your business faces.

1. Be True
Reassess the business, the brand, and its offers.

Business Situation
Too many businesses currently assume their audiences know what they stand for. The plight of the Big Three automakers has many core causes, but one springs directly from product offers ill-designed to resonate with consumers. In short, no value equals no sale. This simple economic Darwinism ensures that real, compelling offers will find traction and last, while peripheral SKUs and product/service extensions will not.

Brand Reaction
Define the truth and value of your operation early. Get to the heart of what you do, and talk about it a way that is clear and compelling. Anything that does not represent who you are and what your market needs should be excised, or repackaged in a way that your targets will be receptive to – enabling your employees to sell and communicate with confidence.

To minimize the mid-course corrections, ask yourself:
What should be retained for the future? What is marginal and can be retired? What can be changed to remain relevant?

2. Beat Change

Redirect perceptions and refine your reputation.

Business Situation
In times of economic dislocation, forces beyond your control can influence reputations. For instance, the public sector is going to be influencing the decision-making process of almost every major industry (particularly regarding infrastructure), and the resultant attention and investment will filter and reframe the perception of each business involved.

How can you best position yourself and address these new realities in a way that distinguishes your offering?

Brand Reaction
Start now. Going forward, getting out in front of change to influence perception is vital. Restructuring of companies and their portfolios will, by definition, create something new in the minds of employees, customers, and investors, thereby demanding a complementary repositioning of the company's communication platform. An industry involved in infrastructure, therefore, would be well advised to recalibrate its messaging around a narrative that highlights its role in rebuilding America.

If you want to be seen in a positive light, consider the following: Who is holding the torch? What are they looking for? Will your present story attract them, or does it have to be reshaped?

3. Rebuild Trust

Business Situation
2008 was the year trust was trounced. In 2009, companies and institutions will attempt to instill confidence in people and markets by rebuilding credibility. Increased transparency and monitoring will be the order of the day not just from regulators, but also from clients and customers who have even greater access to media and communications channels.

How can you offer the kind of reassurance that takes root and fosters greater connection and growth?

Brand Reaction
Rather than adopting the old crisis maxim of "back to basics," get back to who and what you are, and then live up to that. Instead of viewing the fact that the world is watching as an intrusion, take it as an opportunity to justify and substantiate your business promise – every day. Share your core values and beliefs, and "walk the walk." Do it not because you're being monitored, but because it shows that your business is one that is serious about the challenges facing us, and one that can, therefore, be counted on.

Out there, needs now trump wants. This should drive our collective sense of the truth, and our priorities. Beyond the moral question, it's a principle that impacts commerce at the most basic level. Accordingly, ask what can you do to rebuild trust not just amongst your markets, but also your employees and your customers. Do you have a culture in which information flows freely, or is parceled out on a need-to-know basis? Are there changes in your communications infrastructure you could make to ensure greater candor? Could your messaging be more honed to account for the concerns your audiences have?

4. Start Talking
Re-engage customers and recast relationships.

Business Situation
The conversation many companies are used to having with their clients is now over. Broadly speaking, it took this form:
"Want more of the same?"

It doesn't work that way anymore. From now on, new forms of relationships will have to be forged with customers, as well as employees, partners, the public sector - in fact, all stakeholders in your business. The same old ritual exchanges are no longer relevant or resonant. How can you recast and reinforce your connection to your audiences? What will it take to re-frame your capabilities, products and/or services in a way that keeps them vital, necessary, and in demand?

Brand Reaction
Open up, and listen up. Engaging your clients means reconnecting with them and their world on both a personal and a business level. Take a look at your key relationships and find out what has changed for them – new circumstances, new strategies, new requirements. Then, examine your own individual and collective skill sets – which ones are still applicable? Which permutations might be recalibrated to form more compelling offers? Identifying the opportunities that have the most mutual significance and potential resonance is the way to create real, lasting value for a client or, indeed, the industry that your expertise best serves. And it all starts with a new kind of conversation.

5. Rince and Repeat
Put your ideas into practice, practice, practice.

Business Situation
All of the recommendations we've outlined over the past few weeks do not constitute anything finite. As with everything in this precarious climate, quick fixes are out. Addressing your brand's value is hardly a transformational event after which normal service will be resumed. Rethinking and looking at who you are, what you do, and how to tell your story to interested parties is an ongoing process that requires both consistency and flexibility. It also requires practices and disciplines that should become constant and integral to the way you do business, and which may be refined or altered as necessary.

Brand Reaction
Essentially, being aware of what you're saying, and knowing both the status of your brand and its reputation, establishes and strengthens your proprietary position. Do you have any type of systematic way of measuring this? Research, feedback, surveys, and/or collected anecdotal evidence? If not, then that new conversation ought to cover a lot of interesting ground.

In addition to helping sustain your overall business, the growth of that awareness and the resulting affirmation can also cultivate an internal resource that has become increasingly rare – confidence. Moving forward, and taking into account the five suggestions we offer, consider now how you will maximize your marketing and communications resources. The balance of the year will inevitably occasion some course corrections, but working from a well considered, strongly founded plan will enable your business to take the new twists and turns with less disruption – and a greater sense of direction.

Ron Cappello is the founder and CEO of Infinia Group, a brand strategy and design firm based in New York City. He can be contacted at 212-463-5101 and [email protected].