How Brands Can Progress in Times of Crisis

Alain Sylvain, founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs, a strategy and design consultancy, argued that marketers' ability to move things forward in times of crisis is dependent on activating the instincts that don't come naturally during a crisis.

For brands in a recession, it's a poignant time for purpose if marketers activate the right instinct and emotion. Sylvain unpacked the energy and cadence brands must navigate, and the potential finding and providing relevance brings to consumers; he dubbed this phenomena "The Progress Instinct" over the popular "Fight or Flight" response — an instinct that allows for longer-term thinking and planning.

Brands, Sylvain argued, need to be beacons of progression and inspiration, and stressed that it is time to forget lofty words and embrace the true utility of brand purpose in the fundamental needs and well-being of people.

Sylvain Labs, founded in 2010, works with large brands and corporations like Time and Amazon. Because of that, staying relevant is on the minds of the most popular brands, which means that smaller companies need to shift focus as well — and can't just ride on what worked before.

With more than 150,000 deaths in the U.S. and 40 million unemployed, the current moment is a grim picture, and a challenging climate for marketers. What role do brands and advertisers have right now? Life, it feels, is put on hold. Among this, protests have broken out over racial injustice and violence, notably after George Floyd's tragic death.

Instead of asking "When will normal come back?", brands need to instead ask, "How will we create the new normal?" Not only is it unhealthy and fruitless for brands to perpetuate the past, but it is especially dangerous to not meet people where they are, both for business but also for maintaining physical and mental health. Instead of passively waiting for change, for someone else to "do something," brands need to proactively push for progress.

"Stress throws your brain into primitive survival mode; it's hardwired to react that way. In response, your brain hijacks blood from your more rational, creative regions to fuel the physiology of 'fight or flight,"' Cynthia Ackrill, MD physician and stress expert has stated. Sylvain quoted Ackrill to illustrate how this response is actually an impediment for brands, and will only hurt growth — and innovation that could meet needs in an uncertain time.

Sylvain stated that companies can "outgrow their rivals" after a recession if they embrace progressing and changing. In addition, according to the Harvard Business Review, in a crisis, 37 percent of companies deploy the optimal combination of defense and offense, while 29 percent of companies combine defensive and offensive moves, 26 percent invest more in offense, and 21 percent only make defensive moves.

As of now, 11 percent of the workforce in the U.S. has been cut with 23 percent capital expenditure reduced and 12 percent R&D expenditure reduced. Sylvain outlined how this affects and shifts business, outlining "macro-shifts."

Shift 1: Reprioritized energy
Shift 2: Collective care
Shift 3: Mainstream activism
Shift 4: Transparency reigns
Shift 5: Mindful checkups

These shifts should prompt companies to take more active roles in progressing toward a more inclusive and equal society, whether it's language apps adapting to change or clothing brands opting to be more sustainable.


"How Brands Can Progress in Times of Crisis." "Alain Sylvain, Founder and CEO at Sylvain Labs. ANA 2020 1-Day Brand Building, 7/20/20.

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