Conquering Chaos Through Communication and Discipline

The dawn of each new year always brings with it unforeseen challenges, opportunities, and questions. But with uncertainty also comes another feeling: anxiety triggered by chaos.

When we originally wrote this blog post, it was early 2017 and the country—and, to a large extent, the world—was recovering from a chaotic U.S. presidential election cycle that shook everyone, regardless of their political leanings.

Add that to the other challenges of 2016, if you can remember back that far: a Zika virus outbreak, the rise of ISIS, and a surprise Brexit.

Yet here we are again, in 2020, revisiting this topic once more as we enter yet another period of unpredictability, this one linked to the worldwide coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, which has sickened communities, frozen economies, and kept millions of the world’s population stuck at home.

Whether it’s 2016 or 2020 or some future year when you read this, chances are the world sometimes feels like it is spinning out of control.

So how do we harness these eras of constant change, uncertainty, and flux to help move our business forward?

While it’s tempting to cling to tried-and-true methods for getting things done, launching products and businesses, or connecting with your customers, a time of change is also a good time to step back. Use this moment to evaluate whether your current practices are leading your business towards obsolescence, too.

If this blog post proves anything, it’s that constant change may become the new normal. When we first wrote this in 2017, we didn’t expect to update it just three years later. Yet, here we are.

Take this as a lesson to stay a step ahead and continue to create products and services that are of value to your customers when they need it most.

Here’s a two-step process that has helped us during times of uncertainty. Hopefully it will help you, too.

Step one: acknowledge how your customers (and you) are feeling.

During chaotic times, when the latest headlines or the most recent industry shake-up might dominate everyday conversation, it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge how all of this uncertainty actually makes us feel. Too often we get swept up in the minutiae of day-to-day thinking, endlessly refreshing our social media and news sources and letting ourselves become overwhelmed by stress.

As an antidote to this short-term thinking, consider what the Pew Research Center calls the “cost of caring.” In their study of social media usage, they found that social media users (in particular, women) were more likely to feel stress when they perceived that people they knew were also suffering stress in their own lives.

And researchers have found that stress can be even higher in moments of unpredictability—when people literally don’t know what to expect—than in actual moments of difficulty or pain. (Just ask researchers at University College London who found that people were far more stressed when they were uncertain about whether they would receive an electric shock than when they knew it was coming.)

In other words, if we know that we’re feeling stressed because of disease outbreaks, political upheaval, economic challenges, or disruptions in our industry, our customers most likely are, too.

So why reach out to stressed-out customers, clients, and colleagues during chaotic times?

All of us in marketing have learned to never underestimate the power of consumer trust in building a brand. It’s equally important to remember that trust doesn’t just develop through a practical, service-based relationship with your customers. In fact, researchers from ESCP Europe Business School found that there is a “synergy between the customer’s rational and emotional engagements” with a business.

In uncertain times, reaching out externally builds trust, strengthens relationships, and helps find ways forward.

It’s also simply a kind, considerate, and human gesture.

And it brings us together: by publicly acknowledging how ourselves, our team, and our customers are feeling, we’re better able to process stress together and find effective solutions to problems facing our businesses and brands.

This isn’t a moment to sell a product or promote a brand. It’s about fostering a human connection and offering support and community during a difficult time.

Step two: stay disciplined.

No matter how careful your process for developing and shaping new ideas, chaos breeds indiscipline. When uncertainty looms, it’s easy to cut corners, loosen up quality control, and be sloppier in your messaging or your approach because you’re preoccupied with other concerns.

Paradoxically, moments of chaos are often when disciplined work is needed more than ever.

To review, let’s briefly explain what we mean when we talk about discipline in the context of marketing. Here’s how we define it at CB: “An approach to creating work, with strategic thinking ingrained throughout our process, that is dedicated to improving the lives of consumers.”

If we use that definition, there are few moments more critical for our consumers than moments of stress or uncertainty. It’s in these moments that a disciplined approach to marketing truly outshines a sloppier process.

During times of crisis, brands or businesses that discard discipline in order to capitalize on uncertainty—whether through an ill-timed or aggressive marketing blitz or simply a cavalier attitude—almost always suffer.

In contrast, those businesses which approach the current situation through the lens of their strategic process—which means always keeping the end consumer in mind—are more likely to emerge with their credibility intact.

But being disciplined in uncertain times isn’t just about making strategic decisions and ensuring only the sharpest, most focused ideas reach consumers (although that is a big part of it.)

Discipline also helps companies retain and uphold their deeply-held values. For example, at CB, a central cornerstone of what we do is ensuring that our work actively improves the lives of consumers, which means we are selective about who we work with, the work we produce, and its end purpose.

It would be easy for us to abandon those principles in a moment of transition and seek to capitalize on consumers at their most confused or uncertain. That, we’ve committed, we won’t do. Instead, we’ll continue a disciplined approach that puts our values first.

While this seems like an obvious decision to make, it’s not always easy for companies to reconcile their internal values with their external actions. A 2014 study from Aarhus University found that many large companies have “two markedly different value systems” between their internal process and their external sense of social responsibility.

We’ve seen this clearly in recent years. Brands that have spurred goodwill among consumers have taken actions in line with their values and their mission, such as upgrading passengers on flights or donating much-needed supplies. On the other hand, brands that have allowed short-term thinking to cloud their judgment have gotten scorned for offering unclear promotions or limited-time offers.

Moments of chaos and uncertainty allow us time to bring our values in line and show that we practice what we preach—all through the power of discipline. Yes, times are uncertain and possibly will be for a long time. We’re here to serve others, so let’s do so effectively and compassionately.

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