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In times of economic turmoil, brands tend to think of cost-saving measures such as limiting new products or cutting overheads as the ultimate solution to budgetary woes. And while this approach may help profit margins in the interim, any savings gained are often either short-lived or negligible. Brands that hope to truly recession-proof their business must instead adopt an entirely different attitude—one that is additive rather than subtractive—in order to see opportunity where others only see threat.
This year and beyond, companies in any space—whether apparel, food, or fitness—need to prioritize creating ecosystems consumers can’t live without. Some industries are already doing this well. In the travel space, for example, you can book a flight on American Airlines and earn points for Hyatt hotels. Major health and wellness brands are also realizing the value of these partnerships, coming together this last November for the inaugural Well by HLTH, a discussion on the ecosystems that connect culture and care.
While it can be tough to stay ahead of accelerating trends (and pending recessions), ensuring you’re ideally situated in a brand ecosystem is the best way to maintain relevancy with your consumers in the ways that matter most to them—in good times and bad. Now is the moment to invest in yours. Here are four ways to thrive while you do it:
1. Nurture relationships over transactions
First, remember that while transactions are a one-to-one interaction between a buyer and a seller, relationships are usually more multifaceted. If brands hope to create those types of meaningful connections, then they must first understand the nature of relationships—particularly how they impact the behaviors and habits of consumers.
Who we are as individuals is a direct reflection of our closest relationships with other people: if your work colleagues always buy cheeseburgers and fries for lunch, for example, then you’re probably not going to have a salad when you sit down to eat together. The same holds true for your brand. Consider how your brand might facilitate a consortium or alliance of complementary brands to help customers achieve their goals (even in the face of challenges) and you’ll be making it that much easier to become an irreplaceable part of their lives.
2. Design for the ecosystem
Another way to help consumers get the most out of your brand experience is by nurturing brand ecosystems through smart design. If you’re a smoothie chain, for example, you might consider building an ecosystem through partnerships with gyms, fitness trackers, and other wellness products to help customers achieve healthy lifestyle goals and earn points with relevant brands.
In this hypothetical broader ecosystem, the customer could strengthen relationships with your brand and others, along with consumers that share the same goals. The customer, who might redeem points for a free smoothie or workout class, would be introduced to healthy new habits that benefit your brand’s bottom line. Ultimately, ecosystems facilitate transformational relationships that serve to support everyone involved, a win for brands and consumers.
3. Engage community contributions to your product and strategy
To build community around your product, you need to stay ahead of blink-and-you-miss-it changes in your space. (Brand trackers are one way to stay abreast of opportunities). Nike is particularly good at engaging with a wide range of consumers and different communities: it recently teamed up with Polaroid to create a unique skateboarding shoe to highlight women, non-binary, and LGBTQ skaters. Nike also works with indigenous communities, commissioning capsule collections from indigenous designers. And Nike uses its N7 fund to help Native communities in North America achieve healthier lives.
Communities on social are particularly eager to embrace brands that can seamlessly contribute to the creator-driven landscape. For example, while rapper Doja Cat is not exactly considered a “brand-safe” partner, her authenticity provided an opportunity for Taco Bell to broaden its brand ecosystem and promote the return of the “Mexican Pizza.” It’s only one of many products that benefited from the #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt hype: in fact, during the fourth quarter of 2021 (the most recent available data as of the time of this article), TikTok users spent $824 million on Google Play and the App Store —a substantial ROI for brands willing to invest in the online ecosystem.
4. Seek connection, not perfection
Seek connection, not perfection. Behavioral changes that used to unfold over the course of a decade now happen in a matter of months. Faster than ever, new habits are forming—and new opportunities are arising. Consumers tightening their own belts in the coming months will find it much harder to let go of brands that have become a part of their ecosystem. The brands that haven’t established those relationships won’t make the cut.
Nurturing an ecosystem requires agility, not instant perfection: the ability to quickly iterate and adapt to a connection of things will be what drives loyalty and excitement from consumers as we weather the storm ahead and come out of it, together. Connection, not perfection, will be what matters most.