How Three Rs—Resilience, Responsiveness and Regeneration—Allow Nature and Brands to Survive and Thrive in Times of Crisis

By Doug Studer, CEO and Biomimicry 3.8 Specialist, Deskey Branding

Like many of you, I am struggling to find my way through this crazy new reality. This pandemic is a crisis unlike any I have encountered in my lifetime. 

At Deskey, our BluEarth Practice teaches us to look to nature for inspiration, and fortunately, a crisis like the one we’re in is not a new experience for the natural world. Many species and organisms are inherently prepared for disturbances. 

This is the first post in a series that looks at how nature survives and thrives in times of crisis and what we in branding and business can learn from her. In short, when it comes to solving market challenges, we’re asking, “What would nature do?”

The key to surviving this crisis and living to thrive in the aftermath comes down to three things: resilience, responsiveness and regeneration. In nature, those are defined as follows:

  • Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbances and still retain its basic function, structure and feedback systems.
  • Responsiveness is any behavior of a living organism that results from an external or internal stimulus.
  • Regeneration is the renewal or restoration of a biological system (such as a plant, an animal or an entire forest) after injury or disturbance or as a normal process.

To illustrate these points, let’s use the example of one of my favorite organisms, my “spirit animal” in fact, the California redwood. I know it’s a tree, but plants are as alive as any animal. Their strategies must be working pretty well because coast redwoods can live to be 2,000 years old and their cousins, the giant sequoias, can live to be 3,000 years old.

Survive and Thrive in the time of crisis - Resilience, Responsiveness and Regeneration

Resilience

For resilience, the coast redwood has thick, tannin-rich bark that not only protects it from insects but also makes it practically impervious to all but the worst fires. They are tall, so tall that they create their own microclimate. The largest release up to 500 gallons of water into the surrounding air in a single day. They do not have deep roots, but they make up for that by reaching out horizontally to their neighbors, intertwining to create a network that strengthens the entire grove.

In branding terms, the redwood uses size and scale as a way to build resilience. In business, it’s a concept that’s working well for Nike. They closed retail and distribution centers to protect their employees, but at the same time, Nike remained committed to paying them. While many other large corporations are looking for bailouts, Nike has the resources to weather the current crisis.

Responsiveness

Redwoods, as I noted, withstand fires, but beyond that, some species like the giant sequoia actually depend on fires. In response to fires, the cones of the sequoia that are usually shut tight with resin open in the heat, releasing their seeds to the burned ground to bring about new growth. 

Nike has embraced responsiveness in several ways. When retail shops closed, Nike switched focus to online sales, using the Nike Training Club workouts to entice consumers into their ecosystem while reminding them to stay safe, at home and away from their usual gyms.

Also, when healthcare workers needed personal protective equipment (PPE), Nike was able to re-engineer existing technology from their Air-Soles to make face shields. This pivot was guided by a strong brand ethos: “From the beginning, we framed it up very much like an athlete project. The athlete is the healthcare worker — let’s reorient ourselves completely around that.” — Michael Donaghu, VP, Nike Innovation

Like the redwood’s far-reaching root system, PPE was distributed to support healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 response in cities where Nike employees live and work.

Regeneration

When the time is right, new coast redwoods can grow from the base of existing trees or their roots, creating families of trees that further stabilize the grove. Even in death, redwoods regenerate, serving as nurse logs that sprout new trees while hosting some 9,000 other organisms.

As Nike began to reopen stores in China, they developed a road map for how to return safely to normalcy for the rest of their stores. In addition, based on engagement with value-adds like the Nike Training Club app and new online shopping habits (sales went up 30%), we can fully expect people to continue digital engagement even as retail reopens.

Looking to the future, Nike has new opportunities to explore what it means to be an athlete, providing the protective and respiratory gear that athletes and healthcare workers alike will count on.

This post is an example of how one brand parallels the behaviors of one organism. But you don’t have to be as big as Nike or a redwood tree to survive. Nature gives us countless examples of species large and small that can inspire us to think differently about the three Rs and how they can guide your brand to what’s next.

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