By Jeff Venza
In the world of professional sports, athletes dedicate hours honing their particular craft through the meticulous acquisition and practice of a specialized set of skills. But before they step foot on their arena of choice, they have to learn the rules of the game. After all, you can’t play the game — certainly, you can’t play to win — if you don’t know how the game is played. In the realm of business, the same rules apply.
A successful venture into entrepreneurship doesn’t simply require the ideation and creation of a great or otherwise unique product or service. Business owners have to know their industry, understand who they’re selling to and how to sell to them, before they can successfully market and deliver their respective offering. Basically, they have to know the rules of the game — and know them well. And now, in a post-pandemic world, the rules of business have changed.
Over the course of a year, the world as we knew it came to a standstill. Fear swept through communities, stay at home orders were issued, and businesses closed their doors. The plans (both business and professional) which we had in place for 2020, were subject to sudden and drastic change, and the social and economic climate followed suit. No one had a coronavirus contingency plan in place but, they had to create one — and quickly. Business during a global event, especially one of this unprecedented magnitude, is anything but ‘business as usual’. It wasn’t about selling anymore, it was about connecting with customers and offering genuine support while maintaining relationships. It was no longer about offering the best price or even the best product; it was about offering value, an empathetic shoulder, and rising to the occasion of social and political concerns. It was about guiding good people to do great things, against all odds.
Diversity and Inclusion Takes Center Stage
In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic acted as a perfect storm; a catalyst that brought long-standing social movements to the forefront of our minds and hearts. As the Black Lives Matter movement unfolded, brands and individuals alike were called, in urgent fashion, to uphold a higher standard of diversity and inclusion. And as we came to grips with the systemic blind spots that existed within corporate, political, and social hierarchies, we collectively vowed to do better. Regardless of industry, brands had their work cut out for them — it was time to do things differently, to view internal infrastructure under a new, more inclusive lens.
With publications like the Washington Post noting that, historically, companies have “repeatedly stopped short of major overhauls during prior opportunities for change,” it wasn’t enough to simply promise ‘change’; rather, that change had to be visible, tangible, and long-term. Performative allyship would no longer be tolerated by employees, prospective customers, or the world at large. It was time for companies to match their actions with their proclamations, and make real, tangible efforts to advocate for good — not just for some, but for all.
To this effect, we watched as organizations around the world changed their names, changed the way they did business, changed the way they gave back, and changed the way they built their teams. While countless businesses hired Diversity and Inclusion consultants, Walmart promised to stop locking up hair and beauty products deemed as ‘multicultural’ in display cases, while Pepsi vowed to rebrand their Aunt Jemima pancake mix brand to “make progress toward racial equality.” Sephora, the popular beauty supplier, reportedly committed to devoting at least 15% of its shelf space to black-owned beauty brands. Moreover, in a historical move, the 2021 Fortune 500 list will finally include self-reported diversity and inclusion data by which companies can be sorted and ranked.
In light of this, companies are implored to conduct frequent and thorough internal audits of their policies. This audit should consider all elements of business, from hiring to manufacturing, marketing, and beyond, to ensure diversity and inclusion exists at the heart of their brand, both now and in the future. Starbucks, for example, launched a comprehensive D&I plan, identifying a goal of “BIPOC representation of at least 30% at all corporate levels and at least 40% at all retail and manufacturing roles by 2025.”
A Community-Centric Approach Empowered by Technology
Over the last 10 months, many of our traditional touch-points and experiences have, understandably, been moved online. More than ever, communities are isolated and cut-off from their normal routines, comforts, and opportunities for engagement, leaving consumers with an enhanced desire to connect via virtual mediums.
Simultaneously, companies have shifted to adopt a largely remote workforce which, for many employees, can be a convenient but admittedly challenging shift in their professional environment. Working from home eliminates the need for a commute; however, it can be rife with distractions, workflow inefficiencies, and communication breakdowns. In the absence of in-person networking opportunities, brainstorming sessions, and meetings, many employees feel disconnected from their peers and superiors, lost amongst an influx of slack notifications and a steady barrage of Zoom meeting invites. But according to Upwork, the work-from-home model is here to stay. Their reports show that 41.8% of the American workforce continues to work remotely, with 26.7% still working from home through the end of 2021. Moreover, 22% of the workforce is expected to be working remotely by 2025.
With this in mind, many companies are evolving their digital communication strategies and shifting their approach to business (both externally and internally) to adopt a community-centric view that places a critical emphasis on compassion and digital connection. More than ever, we are seeing industries vocalize the importance of peer-to-peer support, work-life-balance, empathy, and mental health initiatives, to help employees and customers battle pandemic fatigue and professional burnout during these unprecedented times. Those brands which prioritize people, both within their company and beyond, by demonstrating a focus on health and well-being, public safety, and community support, are positioned to make a meaningful impression.
In the coming years, consumers and employees will remain loyal to those brands they believe in, while the widespread proliferation of virtual technology makes the cultivation of online relationships possible. In fact, research notes that, prior to COVID-19, only 20% of companies were using cloud-based communications. By 2030, that number is expected to rise to 50-60%. Zoom, specifically, has experienced a compound annual growth rate (between 2016 and 2020) of 182%. To this effect, companies should leverage digital communication platforms internally, and their online presence externally, to establish ongoing rapport with their audience while offering opportunities for value-driven engagement at every touch-point.
Local and Sustainable Business
From a logistical standpoint, the pandemic has been especially challenging. The global shift to e-commerce was one which many small to medium businesses were not equipped to facilitate in such a timely manner, and local and international supply chains were tested under mounting pressure and restrictions. Due to this, the process of getting products into the hands of consumers who were suddenly entirely reliant on online shopping became rather complicated. Brands had to shift their reliance on international distributors and supply chains to make way for a more localized approach, while consumers began to demonstrate a preference for local business and goods.
Perhaps, this trend emerges as a silver lining — sustainable business has, after all, been a topic of growing concern over the past decade. In the wake of the pandemic, sustainability awareness is at an all-time high and, as companies reorganize their internal infrastructure and policies, we see an opportunity for sustainable transformation. And those brands that do not seize this opportunity across their practices with respect to climate transparency, carbon-neutral practices, and resource efficiency, it appears, will be held accountable by increasingly conscious consumers. Reports show that 79% of consumers are changing their purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact demonstrated by a brand. Data also indicates that sustainability-marketed products grew 5.6 times faster than non-sustainable products, with consumers willing to pay more for sustainable products and services.
If there is one takeaway, it’s this — in 2020, doing good became very good for business, and that trend is here to stay. Corporations must look beyond the product or service they sell to consider the true ‘why’ and ‘how’ of their brand, as it informs the way they conduct business and establish relationships with their customers. Moving into 2021, many industries are on track for a gradual recovery in a post-pandemic world, but we also recognize an opportunity to transform the business landscape in ways that promise a much brighter, sustainable future ahead. The world has certainly changed; but perhaps, it’s changed for the better.