Coronavirus offers big brands the chance to think like a ‘re-startup’

Acting like a startup is never usually realistic for large corporates, but the Covid crisis now requires these companies to reassess many of their first principles.


“Think like a startup!” Ever heard that edict uttered from on high in your multinational, multi-departmental, multi-thousand-populated corporate entity?

Why do CEOs say this stuff? Have they ever even been part of a startup, worked out of a hut, felt the fear of cash running out? They are far more likely to have prowled the cubicles inside the steel-and-glass skin of the world’s corporate towers since their graduate days, working up to running a function, a brand, a region, maybe crossing over from one sector to another, but rarely starting anything from scratch.

Everything will change forever after coronavirus…won’t it?

But what they’ve seen along the way, and what they see clearly now from the top of the organogram, is the sluggishness and conservatism of organisational process. More alarming still is what they see in the rear-view mirror: the disruptors and newbies bearing down on their mighty, asset-rich but slow-manoeuvring corporate caravan. It’s not illogical to reason that if you want to beat off those assailants, you have to think like they do.

And, to be fair, that edict from on high does not always fall on deaf ears. In the fractal way of things, managers inside the corporate hub seethe at the tired routines within their own sub-disciplines and deploy their own initiatives to shake things up: the nudges, the scrums and sprints, the separate units, carved out to do things bravely.

But ‘think like a startup’ rarely translates into ‘act like a startup’ within the corporate sphere. It’s not just that habits are too ingrained, risks too resisted, territories too stoutly defended – though that is part of it, for sure. It’s that corporations just don’t feel like startups. They feel like what they are: big and safe and impermeable. The visceral mix of optimism and terror, adrenaline and cortisone, or simply sell-or-die survivalist instinct that attends the workday experience of the genuine startup isn’t there.

Well, it wasn’t. But it is now.

Enter the ‘re-startup’

It’s a simple enough concept in theory. Big organisations that have had to put on hold some or all of their activities over the past months will soon be restarting them. They can seek to do that by picking up the pieces and going back to their old ways. Or they can use the fact of having to completely stop as an opportunity to reassess everything. They can restart like a startup. Because now, with the fear and the urgency only too palpable, that’s finally how it feels.

In practice, coming back as a re-startup can mean a range of new ways of thinking, working and bringing the corporation’s offer to market. Here are some themes that I’m starting to pick up from the marketers and senior managers that I work with.

1. Quarterly goes weekly

The quarterly cadence of big business gave the illusion of momentum – to the extent that many complained about ‘short-termism’. In reality, it allowed decisions to be deferred to the next meeting, after more ‘analysis’ or ‘consultation’. Now, in a fast-moving crisis, meetings are more frequent, more focused and more likely to lead to a decision that can be swiftly trialled. The crisis will pass. But the most dynamic re-startups will resist reverting to the old temporal norms.

2. Ruthless automation

Businesses that have long debated the pros and cons of automation in creative, artisanal parts of their offer – hospitality-sector kitchens, for example – now have the decision made for them. Outside of completely rebuilding the facility, it’s the only way to achieve employee distancing.  Dispassionate consideration of other opportunities for automation is sure to follow.

3. Hierarchy humbled

Corporations have long been fond of declaring themselves ‘open and flat’. They never were. Whether overt or unwritten, hierarchical structures and rules of communication applied. Now, with the very existence of the business under threat, good ideas really can come from anywhere and be taken seriously. In the true re-startup it’s more open even than that: nobody knows where an idea originated; nobody up the chain is expected to champion it or bin it. Ideas evolve through common access and have one narrow gateway to survival: when objective metrics prove they work.

4. Real not theatre

Marketers have long talked about ‘hygiene factors’. It was a metaphor. It isn’t now. Consumers are not going to be reassured by the theatre of a piece of paper in the washroom bearing a vague scribble to signal when it was last cleaned. They probably never were. Re-startup marketers have seen the direction of travel and acted fast. Even in packaged goods brands, where consumers never set foot on company premises, they are prioritising proof of cleanliness, safety and security way back in the supply chain. They understand the extraordinary lengths to which they must go, both substantively and in communications, to earn that precious ‘brand trust’. 

5. Consumers don’t know

The crisis has made something obvious: the contextual backdrop is apt to skew the observations that emerge from consumer research. So marketers looking for enduring insights have needed to tread carefully, dig deeper into the data, and explore new methodologies to get beneath the surface. The most foresighted marketers will continue like that – because even though it is not always obvious, there is always a contextual backdrop.

Irreplaceability is the ultimate goal of a brand

The drive to act as a re-startup could come from the top but it doesn’t have to. In fact, the dissemination of initiative to adapt without permission is one of the signs that things have changed. Operations, finance, IT – and marketers – can be the ones leading the new approach to doing things with a leaner, swifter, more disciplined and more imaginative focus.

But whether marketers lead or follow they need to be there at the heart of things. Decisions implemented by other functions will have an impact on the brand and how it is perceived. That needs to be managed – or the proposed changes challenged. Whatever the social and economic backdrop, whatever the scale of the underlying internal upheavals, we are still the corporate citizens most able to think like a consumer.