Dual challenges open new marketing avenues.
From the time COVID-19 emerged and began its gargantuan disruption, businesses worldwide upended their operational modes and reformulated their public identities and messages.
In the wake of that unprecedented paradigm shift came yet another: the nationwide resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement. The death of George Floyd while in police custody captivated worldwide attention via social media, setting off a slew of protests.
Two enormous, heretofore unseen obstacles cast a mammoth shadow on what once was known as business as usual.
For businesses in this unprecedented age, what have been the most significant challenges?
“The better question might be, ‘What isn’t a challenge?’” said Michael Wesson, chair of Harbert’s Department of Management.
“If I had to narrow it down to a few challenges, I would say: leadership, communication and coordination between employees, and attachment and commitment to the organization. Some have handled these issues spectacularly well and some have failed miserably.”
But that’s how businesses operate under normal circumstances. Disruptions are magnified when the only mode of leadership remaining is also the most unnatural—the virtual office.
“Humans are primarily social beings, and one of the things people like about work is having social contact with other people,” Wesson said. “It helps us to identify who we are and where we belong.”
When management and employees are forced to communicate solely via Zoom and other video formats, the value of communication plummets, he said.
“Right off the bat, virtual teams tend to have lower levels of trust and cooperation as well as lower levels of commitment and cohesiveness among their members,” Wesson said. “Leading virtual teams to rise above this takes a focus on different skills and behaviors to be successful. Some leaders have managed these challenges effectively and some have struggled.”
Those who succeed in disruptive times can see and act on events as they unfold, said Kevin Sneader, global managing partner at McKinsey & Company.
“The first piece of advice I’d offer a CEO is forecasts are out, dashboards are in,” Sneader said. “The notion that you can now forecast the economy, healthcare and other aspects of what can disrupt life, I think, is gone.
“Now we’re in an environment where we’ve also learned that what you really need to have a handle on are the metrics, insights and what’s actually happening on the ground—the dashboard of daily life.”
Converging events, changing narratives
It may seem coincidental that two momentous phenomena struck the world within a couple of months. However, Laura Morgan Roberts of the University of Virginia sees an integral connection between the health crisis and the social uprising.
“COVID-19 has imposed a reign of fear and anxiety and terror on ordinary citizens, and the people who are responsible for shaping the policies and making critical decisions that will have widespread economic and public health implications,” said Roberts, professor of practice at the Darden School of Business.
Roberts said the broadcast of Floyd’s death came at a time “when the world was, by and large, really quiet, because so many things had slowed down, so there weren’t as many distractions to not see or hear or feel.” In the relative quiet of COVID, the death easily pushed its way front and center. People who weren’t watching the demonstrations from their homes were out on the streets pushing for change.
“It’s one of those rare moments in history where people all around the world have tuned into race, and not because it was packaged in terms of a business case for diversity and inclusion, but because there is a clear case to be made for the disregard of human life among people who have black and brown skin,” Roberts said on the Darden podcast “Black Lives Matter and Business: A Defining Moment?”
In the past few decades, phrases such as “diversity and inclusion” have appeared on countless corporate mission statements. But when the words “black lives matter” and “anti-racist” appear in a public statement, it is eye-opening.
“It’s not like they never said that this was a core value to them,” Roberts said. “But to name race, the Black experience, brutality, violence, and then to aspire to be an anti-racist organization is definitely next-level in terms of corporate statements and commitments.”
Staying true to your message
Roberts acknowledges cynics who see only empty gestures. Among them are consumers, who are demanding alignment between a company’s statements and its practices.
“They’re saying, ‘Don’t just put up an ad to make yourself look good so that we’ll run out and buy your stuff. Show me your stats. I want to see the demographic composition of your senior leadership or of your board.’”
Emory Serviss, program champion in the Department of Marketing at Harbert, said the need to embrace adaptability—and open up to accountability—are among the most consequential responsibilities businesses are facing right now.
“Customers are watching carefully to see how companies and brands are reacting to the daily news cycle related to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement,” Serviss said. “Ignoring what is going on in society today will result in customers perceiving companies and brands as being tone-deaf and disconnected.”
To avoid that, marketing professionals must embrace adaptability. Then people will see the company as one that simultaneously educates, entertains and inspires.
“This might mean scrapping current marketing plans and campaigns entirely, but so be it,” Serviss said. “This is a fantastic opportunity for a company to showcase everything that is special about their brand, to truly connect with their customers.”
If managers and marketing leaders have learned anything, it could be to expect the unexpected, and to be prepared to respond, even if it means creating a new language of response.
After all, Wesson said, some changes wrought by disruption may well lead to a significant shift in the way business is done.
“I think that’s almost guaranteed,” Wesson said. “Employees are creative in finding ways to communicate and interact, and this pandemic has forced people into learning new skills. I’d be highly surprised if we see business processes—meeting travel, technology, habits—go back 100 percent to what they once were.”