The Myth of Certainty

As we anticipate another year of upheaval, elections threaten and world events continue to tear up some of our best–laid plans, many are searching for clarity about the future.

Branding, Essentials | 4 minutes read | Gary McIlwaine

The Myth of Certainty
The Myth of Certainty


Business consultants and strategists have recognised that demand for certainty, and there has been a wave of books and reports on how to anticipate and adapt. To use the ultimate clichés of these unprecedented times, these are unprecedented times. A new normal.

But in all the noise of predictions and analysis, are we overlooking something fundamental?



Recognising that the world is unpredictable doesn’t really help with the practical matter of what to do in the aftermath of a crisis.


A history of uncertainty

This search for reassurance about the future is a recurring one. Economists and analysts have always tried to keep a step ahead of uncertainty. McKinsey’s series on defining The Next Normal is in some ways a 21st century echo of conversations had in London coffee shops 300 years ago after the South Sea Bubble burst. What will sensible investors look to in 1721 they asked, through the tobacco smoke and wig powder. 

It’s not always a bubble of course. Sometimes it’s a war or a resource crisis, political unrest, a famine. In 1709 it was a terrible frost that destroyed harvests. The long slump that began in 1873 used to be referred to as The Great Depression until the 1930s took the title off them.

The only certainty is uncertainty

That was while Gordon Brown was Chancellor, and he claimed that under his stewardship the country had ended “boom and bust”. The height of his optimism was a speech in 2006 where he talked about “entrenching stability” for the long term. But we all know what happened the very next year. The financial crisis struck in 2007, triggering another quest for the new normal.

Nassim Taleb’s aphoristic bestseller The Black Swan came out that same year, warning against simplistic explanations and overconfidence in forecasting. “The track record of economists in predicting events is monstrously bad” he wrote. Instead, businesses should expect uncertainty and focus on their own response. “You’re exposed to the improbable only if you let it control you. You always control what you do.”

Taleb’s ideas have been influential, and many commentators today are offering strategy in a context of uncertainty, rather than attempting to predict the world on the far side of Covid–19. But this is little comfort – recognising that the world is unpredictable doesn’t really help with the practical matter of what to do after a crisis.



Before we get to what we should do, we might want to ask a different question: who are we? Crisis reveals character, because the actions we take in the aftermath a crisis will flow out of our values.


Who are we?

As a branding agency, our response is to change the question. Before we get to what we should do, we might want to ask a different question: who are we?

Times of change reveal true character, because the actions we take in response the aftermath of a crisis will flow out of our values. In moments of uncertainty, the question ‘what do we do?’ may well be answered by asking a few other questions first. Who do we think we are? What kind of people are we? What is important to us?

For example, the shoe repair and key cutting firm Timpson has always valued its employees and taken pride in giving people opportunities. It’s the kind of place where everyone gets a day off on their birthday and free use of a company limousine on their wedding day. So when crisis comes, their instinct is to put people first. If you’re unemployed and have a job interview, Timpson will dry–clean your suit for free – that’s a character–led response to rising unemployment.

There were many such responses to the Coronavirus lockdown. Lush cosmetics welcomed people into stores to wash their hands, with no obligation to buy. Innocent smoothies provided unsold drinks to children on free school meals. The American shoe retailer All Birds offered free shoes to medical personnel. The cynical may dismiss these sorts of initiatives as opportunistic PR stunts, but if they are consistent with a company’s existing reputation, then they are an authentic expression of the company’s character. There are far more negative examples of firms that slammed the doors and hung employees out to dry in order to protect shareholder profits. These also reveal a company’s true character, an ugly side brought to the surface after a crisis.

Knowing what we stand for

When challenges come, it helps to already know what your values are, and much of our work is about helping clients to consider their character and articulate it well as part of their brand. Our brand foundation work is all about identifying the traits you might use if your company were a person you were introducing. What three words would you choose to describe them?

Three is plenty – enough to be distinctive, and easier to remember than a dozen corporate pillars. Out of these three character traits we shape the visual brand, exploring and measuring ideas against the chosen characteristics. But brand foundations aren’t just for choosing colours and designing a logo. They’re something you can lean on at moments of uncertainty, and when decisions are hard to make. Clearly defined and well–articulated values will point to what a successful outcome looks like for your company. Understood, endorsed and authenticated by your team, it will lead to the kind of actions that will enhance your reputation and distinctively demonstrate what you stand for.

Doing this well is harder than it sounds, because it’s easy to fall back on reliable and predictable stock phrases. Almost every brand in the service sector will talk about being professional, friendly and approachable – but of course they are. How long would they stay in business if they were slapdash, hostile and distant?

Understanding and communicating character through brand needs a little more sophistication if it’s going to avoid stating the obvious. There’s room for nuance, and it’s important to be distinctive. That’s why we work with business leaders as part of a process, with a variety of exercises that look at the competition as well as their own company, and tease out the differences.

Character matters. The values that we live by shape our actions, especially after a crisis. That’s just as important for brands as it is for individuals. We can’t know what tomorrow will bring. But we can know who we are when we get up in the morning, and let our character determine our responses to the challenges of the day.


Is it time for a rethink?

How compelling is your current brand? Does it reflect your organisation’s character as clearly as it could? Does it still connect when your market shifts? 

Perhaps it’s time for an external assessment. 

We regularly run brand reviews based on a small number of marketing materials. It can help confirm what’s working well and uncover the opportunities to strengthen the brand’s relevancy. 

Book a call to discuss with the team. 


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