Taking Action in a Polycrisis

Today’s turbulent times offer brands the opportunity to fill the leadership gap and provide real solutions, writes John Clark, Strategy Director at Coley Porter Bell

John Clark

Strategy Director Coley Porter Bell


“It’s not a problem, it’s a growth opportunity”. The often-repeated words of an early boss came flooding back while listening to the speakers at the ‘Navigating Tough Times’ event last month. Kate Waters, Director of Client Strategy and Planning at ITV, Consumer Sustainability Expert and Author Georgina Wilson-Powell, and Shazia Arshad, Head of Communications and Creative Content, at Islamic Relief UK each shared their insights and inspiration for brands to not just survive – but thrive – in the face of the current polycrisis.

Each speaker acknowledged that things are undeniably tough right now. But while solutions may be in short supply and guidance is often lacking from the institutions we look to – this can be an opportunity for brands to fill the leadership gap and to act and provide real solutions. From Iceland’s provision of micro-loans to John Lewis’ fanfare-free stocking of Aab modest clothing, in times like these, actions truly speak louder than words.

But that’s not to say it’s easy. All the speakers stressed the importance of doing your homework – and then doing some more. To go beyond surface-level understanding and into a deeper knowledge, to understand not merely behaviours but the motivations, values and beliefs that drive them. Shazia brought this to life beautifully with two contrasting examples, a tone deaf and clumsy action from a make-up brand at Ramadan compared with Tesco’s Ramadan posters which connected to the value of togetherness, not merely the behaviour of breaking fast. And Kate, bringing us insights from ITV’s ‘Race to the Top’ research, talked of going beyond low price and even value, and instead thinking of fairness – an apparently uniquely British word. She brought this to life with a story of Octopus boss, Greg Jackson, receiving a grilling on energy costs on the Martin Lewis show but emerging unscathed by taking the time to explain and playing to the notion of fairness.

It’s essential for brands to go beyond merely reflecting and empathising with the consumer.

John Clark, Strategy Director, Coley Porter Bell

The importance of brands moving beyond empty empathy

Homework on understanding the consumer is only the first step. It’s essential for brands to go beyond merely reflecting and empathising with the consumer. Kate shared how, in the pandemic, ITV quickly learnt that audiences didn’t want to be reminded of their reality via virtual audiences – but instead wanted a momentary escape. And this wasn’t restricted to programming. Research from ITV and System 1 found that the most successful ads in the pandemic were the very same ads that were successful pre-pandemic (not the ones that only reflected and empathised to an acoustic guitar soundtrack). This desire for ‘everyday magic’, one of the motivations ITV discovered that truly unites our nation, is a potentially powerful consideration for brands.

Going beyond reflections, means that brands need to develop their authentic point of view – and stick with it. Georgina gave us examples of Hellmann’s long-term commitment to fighting food waste and its latest ‘food waste hacks’ initiative. And Barilla pasta’s championing of the passive cooking technique is both a way to reduce energy usage (and save money) and authentically communicate its Italian heritage, through traditional 19th Century cooking methods.

Brands and brand owners have a choice between side stepping the conversations, merely empathising, or truly leaning in and taking action.

John Clark, Strategy Director, Coley Porter Bell

The power of an authentic point of view

When you have your point of view, be prepared to lean in and defend it. Shazia told attendees of the strategic pivot Islamic Relief UK took to support Muslims at home and the sobering statistic that 50% of UK Muslims live below the poverty line. Its decision to include this fact in its campaigning was not taken lightly, as it knew it would generate both scepticism about motivations and push-back from parts of society and the media. But, again reflecting the nation’s value of fairness, it embraced the conversations and even sought out the more vocal media outlets. In doing so, it brought the conversation around from ‘challenges’ to ‘how can we help solve this’.

Lastly, we were reminded of the power of thinking ‘and’ not ‘or’. Georgina talked of not thinking about a brand’s core activities or CSR activities but instead weaving sustainable actions throughout. And the fact that consumers didn’t always think of money saving or sustainable actions but were increasingly looking for, and expecting, brands to do both. For example by buying second hand or refurbished goods or paying a little extra for longer lasting options (fairness at play once again). In the cases where people were making trade-offs, we were reminded that sustainability is still an issue consumers campaign for and expect brands to do the same – with the majority influenced by a brand’s commitment to sustainable actions.  

All of which brings us back to my old boss. Yes, the polycrisis is very real and people are struggling. But brands and brand owners have a choice between side stepping the conversations, merely empathising, or truly leaning in and taking action.

Guest Author

John Clark

Strategy Director Coley Porter Bell


During his 30-year career John has worked at communications, integrated and branding agencies bringing a broad perspective to defining, creating and communicating brands. John leads the strategy team at Coley Porter Bell, championing and building its Immersive capabilities and unlocking the potential in brands across multiple categories and audiences.

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