It can sometimes feel like we’ve lived through multiple years in the mere six months since the COVID-19 pandemic began. That feeling is due in part to the rapid pace of change so many of us have experienced during this time—both personally and professionally. Indeed, your business has likely had to consider making changes to the way you operate—perhaps minor, perhaps major—in light of extraordinary circumstances or a fast-changing business landscape.
A central question so many of us are asking right now is: “How does my business stay relevant?” After all, what is scarier for a leader than the prospect of looking around at a changed marketplace and finding your customers no longer need you?
In order to avoid this nightmare scenario, we need to actively engage with the idea of relevance. We need to dig deeper than we may realize into the things that make us relevant. And in order to do this, it’s critical we frame our thinking about relevance correctly. I’ve found it can often be boiled down to a simple fill-in-the-blank phrase. We can call it The Relevance Test, and it looks like this:
“Our customers will always look to us for __________.”
It’s a simple exercise, and it’s tempting to fill in this blank with your business’s immediate function (“We sell tires!”) or purpose (“Cars need tires!”), but as the blacksmith making horseshoes can tell you, overvaluing these seemingly foundational elements can be a risky proposition. Let’s use Airbnb as an example.
Shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Airbnb launched “Online Experiences,” a virtual extension of its “Experiences” program which launched in 2016. Participants can connect with hosts for an incredible array of classes and experiences conducted via Zoom—anything from meditation with Buddhist monks to cocktail lessons. In a world where we can’t connect in person, Airbnb understands its promise goes well beyond rentals, and by continuing to help people connect virtually, they have managed to maintain relevance and thrive in a quickly changing market.
If Airbnb answered the relevance test with “privately-owned rental accommodations,” they’d be representing their primary function (matching property owners to travelers), but they’d be missing the big picture. The World Tourism Organization estimates that global travel could see a decline of 60%-80% in 2020. Clearly, we’ve found a scenario in which Airbnb’s customers do not need/want privately-owned rental accommodations. So how can they fill in the blank in a way that ensures relevance, even in singularly weird times?
Luckily for Airbnb, they understand the difference between their function and their benefit. Put another way, they know their purpose in “normal” times is different from their promise, which must always endure. So, how does Airbnb answer the relevance test?
“Our customers will always look to us for human connection.”
Airbnb understands its promise goes well beyond rentals, a fact made clear by CEO Brian Chesky’s recent observations that amid the pandemic people will “yearn for something that feels like it’s been taken away from them—human connection,” and that “the world needs human connection now more than ever.” By continuing to spark human connection virtually, they’ve managed to maintain relevance and thrive in a quickly changing market.
There are a number of additional examples of companies pivoting to remain relevant amid the pandemic. As Forbes points out, 90% of air travel has been canceled in recent months, so many airlines have pivoted to offering cargo-only flights, filling both their cargo areas and passenger cabins with goods in need of rapid transport.
Toy maker Mattel has launched a “Thank You Heroes” collection of action figures honoring nurses, doctors, delivery drivers, and others who have worked on the front lines of the pandemic.
National fitness company Camp Gladiator pivoted its in-person fitness classes to 100% online classes, an option that became so popular it will remain a staple of their offering in the post-pandemic new normal.
Dating company Match Group, who operates dating platforms like Match and Okcupid has pivoted by offering in-app video dating features. Despite months of quarantine, they’ve experienced an increase in subscribers of 11% compared to last year, according to Market Watch.
This pandemic may not be forcing your business to pivot in the dramatic fashion Airbnb and others have had to, but it’s critical we all strategize for relevance, because we can’t always predict the ways in which our businesses will confront change.
Take some time amid all of this change to consider your business’s promise. How can you anchor your strategy to that promise and chart a course that protects your relevance amid our rapidly changing world?