Is the crisis the new normal? For several years now, business, politics, and society have faced new challenges. First, climate change, then the pandemic, followed by the Ukraine war, the energy crisis, inflation, and the threat of recession.

How do top managers deal with these situations? Do crises create new incentives for innovation? What impact do today's times have on corporate branding, team cohesion, employer branding, and prioritization of issues?

We took these questions as an opportunity to survey executives from 12 well-known companies in a wide range of industries, including Airbus, Flixbus, Hornbach, Deutsche Wohnen, EDGE, Bridgehouse, and even BECYCLE, between September and October 2022.

The five most important findings:

1. A strong corporate culture is more important than ever.

2. Buzzwords are out. Long live authenticity.

3. Empathy is the new leadership quality.

4. Brand Story: It’s all about humanity.

5. Purpose first. Then innovation.

1. A strong corporate culture is more important than ever.

The pandemic, with its global impact, especially on the world of work, represented an unforeseeable situation for all the leaders interviewed. The "new normal" has created new facts that have left tangible effects. Offices no longer fill up as naturally as before, and the lockdowns have become a digitization driver for many companies to enable home office and hybrid working. Andreas Muschter, CEO of the European project developer EDGE Technologies, focuses on four fields of action when developing future workplaces: "Sustainable, smart, best design, with the highest possible feel-good factor. In addition, CO2 neutrality with the highest degree of flexibility."

In terms of corporate culture, on the other hand, new rituals are needed to strengthen togetherness. All executives surveyed emphasized that maintaining and increasing employee satisfaction is the most critical factor, and corporate culture must be lived and exemplified. Charlotte Geyer, Co-Owner and Consultant at Bridgehouse, emphasizes how important "working on the inner attitude [is] for decision makers to make a culture change in the organization sustainable." In her view, leaders need to "stay in touch all the way to the home office." "Human connection, relationship building, and emotional connection are critical in hybrid environments."

The employer brand book, once handed out, has had its day - continuous processes, communication at eye level, and new rituals are necessary for guiding principles to become lived corporate culture.

2. Buzzwords are out. Long live authenticity.

Overall, the challenges of recent years not only put into question purely value-based strategies but also put a particular focus on the levels of action and communication. In particular, the increased demands on employee management mean that concrete steps must follow words. At the top of the list is the need for companies to demonstrate how they are living up to their social responsibility. Karsten Kühn, CMO of Hornbach, puts it in a nutshell: "After all, if your company goal is to make a positive difference in people's lives with your products and services, then you don't need to look for a purpose."

René Obermann, Chairman of Airbus SE and Co-Head of Europe at Warburg Pincus, also backs clear words. "As never before, clarity, truth, authenticity, and consistency are now required. [...] Clarity, so that people understand what is going on in the minds of corporate management and how the direction for companies is defined. Clarity instead of the slick corporate lingo that still is prevalent."

It turns out that many executives have developed a clearer understanding of this in the course of the last few years, and (pre-)living these values has long since ceased to be zeitgeisty buzzwords.

3. Empathy, the new leadership quality.

Value-oriented action requires empathetic employee- and brand management to be anchored in the corporate culture long term and needs to be perceived in the external image. Here, too, the majority of the leaders surveyed emphasized that mere declarations of intent are no longer enough. Employees, the public, and customers expect authentic, assertive communication showing how companies create meaning and add value.

Daniel Krauss, the founder of Flixbus, also sees the relevance of empathy but points out that "empathy is an inherent skill[...] and therefore very difficult to learn. This will make it more difficult to select and assemble managers in the future because you can no longer select only by education and career."

4. Brand Story: It’s all about humanity.

Interestingly, despite their economic challenges, brand managers have recognized that simply focusing on growth strategies can no longer be effective. Instead, companies say they are increasingly focusing on the orientation value of brands and authentic, people-centered brand storytelling.

Cornelia Schneider, former Vice President and Head of Global Experiential Marketing at Hyundai Motor Company, Seoul, calls for a rethink from global to "community-based activities that are individually controlled. Bolder ways will be much more necessary in the future without being burdened with big budgets." For her, individualized, human-centered actions and multiple narratives will make up the brand work of the future.

5. Purpose first. Then innovation.

In light of current and upcoming exogenous challenges, companies face the growing complexity of implementing innovative strategies that require agile teams and can guide the entire company through volatile times stably and consistently.

René Obermann, chairman of Airbus SE, reinforces the thesis. "The increase in complexity can drive you pretty crazy. The task of corporate management at this time is to strengthen the defensive and, at the same time, also take advantage of opportunities in an anticyclical manner. Sure, we need to invest to the best of our ability, e.g., in process automation, in building data leads and analytics, in security in general and cyber protection, and of course, in the major growth areas of our time. At the same time, keep a cool head, so the multiple, parallel challenges don't get on top of you."

In this context, emphatic leadership and collaboration are the decisive factors for success. Innovation for innovation's sake has long since ceased to be the guiding principle; the meaningfulness of (economic) action is the standard of evaluation in the new normal. Daniel Krauss of Flixbus emphasizes the importance of the interpersonal, especially in a world where "many repetitive skills [...] will be performed by machines in the future." Because that's "what machines can't do." 

Conclusion: Crises require courage - yet open up new opportunities.

The abundance of simultaneous challenges has reached a new quality and an additional level of complexity. Old strategies need to be put to the test; new ways need to be found to contest a transformation of a new kind.

Hornbach is already getting to grips with this. Here, the "largest flexibilization project" in the company's history is just being ushered in, "where everyone can choose how much they want to work. Why? Because we feel that there is no longer any reason to divide the world rigidly into full and part-time any longer," explains Karsten Kühne, Hornbach.

Companies that want to overcome today's crises and be more resilient must become more human, collaborative, and emphatic. Only then will they be able to react more sensitively to dynamics, recognize opportunities and use them as a competitive advantage.

At Graft Brandlab, we see ourselves as an engine, accelerator, and corrective in this process. "As an innovation agency, our central concern is to support our clients with future-proof and sustainable strategies, concepts, and ideas, especially in challenging times. Especially now, our creative and emphatic consulting and strategy development are in demand. Because the resilience and success of our clients also make us successful," says Rico Zocher, Managing Partner of Graft Brandlab.