A Look Back at the (Business) Year That Was

From Brexit to brand rehab to virtual reality, all the big developments in 2016 offer us lessons for 2017.
A Look Back at the (Business) Year That Was
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This year, 2016, has been a year to remember, for a number of reasons. First was the topsy-turviest election cycle in history. Second was brands breaking tradition and getting political. Third was cannabis being legalized in a record number of states. Then there was Apple battling the feds over privacy issues, and the deaths of so many entertainment notables, like David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali and more.

Related: The World Reacts on Social Media to Muhammad Ali's Death

While there’s no question that this year has packed a punch, the business world has grabbed its fair share of the headlines -- impacting not only everyday consumers and business leaders at home, but in the global economy as well. 

Here are some of the business stories that caught my attention this year, not because they were the biggest headlines, necessarily, but because of the impact they are having on businesses today, and the effects they're sure to have for years to come.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality is something usually seen in futuristic movies, but as is often the case, the future is now. Virtual reality is a relatively new way for brands to tell their story. In fact, in 2016, VR is expected to be a $1 billion business, according to Deloitte Global. By 2020, VR will be a $30 billion market, Digi-Capital predicts.

VR is an opportunity for brands to create entertaining content that adds value to the consumer, communicates a brand’s mission a point of sale, immerses users in a branded entertainment experience and helps consumers make more informed purchases.

Currently, iconic brands like McDonald's, Coca-Cola and the New York Times have successfully implemented VR into their storytelling. A year ago, the newspaper distributed over 1 million Google Cardboard viewers/glasses to Sunday home delivery subscribers so they could watch the publication's VR film, The Displaced -- telling the story of 30 million children displaced by war.

Lesson: Every business is looking to stand out and be noticed. This approach can make your brand "cutting edge" (and help make it be seen by an entirely new audience) as well as amplify your social media presence. My advice for you is, keep to the real world and let the big guys experiment with the new technology until its kinks are worked out.

Brand rehab

This year wasn’t a particularly good year for some brands. From Chipotle’s issues with food safety, to SeaWorld overhauling its entire brand after the huge public outcry following the film Blackfish, to the Wells Fargo debacle involving fake accounts, and most recently, Samsung’s exploding phones. You name it, it happened.

Related: Wells Fargo Will Pay $190 Million to Settle Customer Fraud Case

What can brands do to restore their image? Here are a few basic steps:

Research and ask questions. Companies must collect a great deal of research, from customers and employees alike, since the latter are the ones interacting with customers directly. Next, you have to ask yourself some tough questions; and the answers could rock your foundation. Ask yourself:

  • What qualities/characteristics should people associate my brand with?
  • What feelings should they have?
  • What should they expect from my brand?
  • Can I support those ideas? If not, what do I need to do to make them happen?
  • What sets me apart from my competition?

Next, consider these important strategies:

  • All hands on deck. Use every tool available: phone calls, online surveys, email surveys, your blog, etc. and ask everyone what they think, feel and expect from your brand. Social media is also a valuable listening tool. I have closed many deals as a result of a reply feedback or a tweet.
  • What’s not working? In order to fully assess the situation, identify the part of your brand that’s not connecting with customers. With some brands like Chipotle and SeaWorld, the wounds were self-inflicted. However, sometimes the problem isn't so obvious. Dig a little deeper.
  • What’s your story? Your brand’s message needs to be cohesive and permeate through all communication materials. It should tell one story that resonates with consumers and be one that everyone can get on board with. A brand is a "promise delivered," so what’s your promise to your customers?
  • Don’t stop believin’. Successful brands are always a living, breathing organism because they have an ongoing relationship with customers. It’s really easy to support a brand in good times, but if a company looks like it has no faith in its own brand, why should the customer? Customers follow the lead of the brand.
  • Be consistent. If you’ve decided to rebrand, avoid changing things every time a customer reacts negatively. Customers get irked when brands drastically shift things, and that constant change can cause you to lose customers at a faster pace than you can attract them.

Lesson: Remain proactive, not reactive, and cool, calm and collected. When the "you know what" is hitting the fan, your customers and employees will look to you for leadership and consistency. Remember, "you’re the captain now."

Related Book: The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build, and Accelerate Your Brand by Karen Tiber Leland

Social media boost

Social media in itself is neither new nor a phenomenon anymore, but how you use it will determine whether your brand lives or dies. How innovative are you on social media? Here’s a good example.

By now, you may have heard about a show called Hamilton, based on that guy on the ten-dollar bill, our nation's first Treasury secretary. But do you know what made the show so popular? A hint: Social media played a big role. The show hosted an “Influencer Night” during previews, but no one expected that the biggest influencer of all would be "Hamilton" himself, actor/playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.

What started out as a creative way to promote the show grew into a social media phenomenon. Twitter served as the tool to connect those who love theater, rap and history, as well as art and poetry (not exactly a common bunch either). It even fueled a special digital club to help keep fans engaged. Additional buzz was created around the daily lottery (twenty-one $10 seats) and the impromptu #Ham4Ham sessions.

Lesson: You need to engage, educate, excite and evangelize your brand everywhere you go, but especially on social. In order to engage your audience members, you must establish an emotional connection first, then let them see behind the curtain. Once they understand the process, they’ll understand the message and understand what you’re trying to do for them. You don’t have to have a Broadway show at your disposal, either. The 4 E’s are applicable to any business industry.

Brexit

I wrote about Brexit and the impact on U.S. businesses earlier this year, and while this was a big enough headline on its own, it has had a bit of a ripple effect worldwide. Initially, the results of Britain's referendum to leave the European Union sent the stock market into a tailspin, caused the International Monetary Fund to call the move “negative and substantial” and affected the U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chair, Janet Yellin’s, decision to keep interest rates low.

While Americans saw little-to-no change in their everyday lives post-Brexit, the United Kingdom has felt economic pain. The FTSE 100 plummeted to its lowest ever, in comparison to the U.S. dollar, while American companies like Wells Fargo swooped in to purchase a new London HQ shortly after the referendum, taking advantage of the drop in currency.

Several sectors also fell in July, including construction (46.0 to 45.9), manufacturing (52.4 to 48.2) and the dominant services (from 52.3 to 47.4), indicating a bleak outlook.

Lesson: U.S. businesses need to formulate a plan and pay close attention to the developments in Europe. It’s not just about Britain anymore. France’s Marine LePen, president of France's conservative National Front, has predicted that, with a referendum victory of its own, France too, will leave the EU.

Other recent key elections in Austria and Italy could spell a global economic shakedown. Whether we like it or not, globalization affects us all, directly and indirectly.  

Related: Brexit: The Risks and Opportunities for American Entrepreneurs

The strongest businesses are able to withstand the storm by being prepared. So saying “what happens in Europe doesn’t affect me” should never be a part of your business strategy. Monitor the situation closely, tune out the noise (and there’s plenty of that to give anyone a headache) and look for opportunities to provide solutions to a problem. That approach will be a wise move, here, there or anywhere.