Finding Purpose in a Crisis: Brands Must Show Their Humanity to Thrive

Brand purpose is bigger than just tokenistic messaging to drive profits. It’s about genuine commitment to a broader social context, and brands who've been slow in cottoning onto this shift are increasingly losing market share and impeding their business growth.

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Consumers can no longer be hoodwinked. In fact, many have grown weary of big brand hyperbole, shady practices and lies. They’ve wizened up to empty greenwashing tactics, puffery around caring about staff (yet abandoning them in times of need) and – even in austerity – increasingly rejecting the ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ retail tactics of old. These days, corporate ‘voting’ occurs with value-based purchases. People do not buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

Never has this been more important, particularly in a world rocked by division and now a global pandemic. From Domino’s, Pret A Manger and McDonald’s giving away free drinks and food to all NHS staff working through the COVID-19 crisis to LVMH converting its perfumery factory into a space for manufacturing hand sanitisers to donate to hospitals; during these frightening and challenging times, brands may even find a true and universal purpose, although you don’t necessarily need adversity to identify and realise this. Nick Dormon, founder and Managing Director of Echo Brand Design, explains why brands must commit to long-term social progress if they’re to survive.

Decisions made during a crisis can have a cumulative effect on businesses, either good or bad. The challenge, therefore, is for brands to ensure that this is a positive one; something that helps maintain the brand’s credibility long-term and contribute to its longevity, success and staff retention. While an individual action during the crisis on its own may be forgotten, if it is followed by a series of further good actions, I believe a positive memory chain will form both amongst consumers and employees. The same could be said for negative actions multiplying to form a poor impression. However, these ‘blunders’ can be countered by positive actions which re-build brand loyalty. For example, the self-deprecating response KFC gave when they ran out of chicken is a great case in point. This savvy brand decision had an ultimately net-positive effect; something that brands can learn from when responding to the current crisis.

Decisions made during a crisis can have a cumulative effect on businesses, either good or bad.

Where Millennials emerged as the generation to demand that businesses should care and be socially conscious, Gen Z is emerging as the generation most likely to hold businesses accountable for making empty promises. Steadfast to their own convictions and morals, if businesses fail to engage meaningfully with Gen Z, they have no chance in retaining new, young talent. Today, the new generation of consumers and those entering the workforce expect brands to demonstrate real and tangible commitments to bettering the environment and our social conditions; in a sense, wanting corporates to walk the talk and hold them to account for their promises and headline-grabbing statements.

Increasingly, global corporations are acting on a sense of responsibility towards humanity and the environment due to their own global reach. Rather than feeling separated from the problem, brands with leadership teams located across the globe have access to knowledge and experiences which can shape their reaction to issues that matter to their employees and consumers.

Despite this, it is, of course, easier for smaller businesses and startups to bake in ethics and purpose into the structure of their brand, and live and breathe this vicariously. But what of the behemoths and the corporate ‘bad guys’ who want to reform, and want to ‘do’ ethics, purpose and sustainability – perhaps not just shift more gear but to do some good as a responsible global citizen?

Developing an authentic brand purpose takes time and dedication, extending beyond just banner-waving or rolling out a limited edition product or design for the cause. It requires genuine structural innovation and a coherent means of delivering a corresponding message that resonates with people’s concerns. When done properly, businesses will experience higher staff retention, driving profits and higher consumer satisfaction and trust. When executed poorly the consequences can be disastrous and fatal on businesses.

Take the oil sector as an example; instead of planting trees as part of a hasty ‘green’ initiative to offset the environmental damage caused, companies need to consider how their resource – oil – can be extracted as efficiently as possible. Planting trees doesn’t negate the detrimental effects of fracking. Planting trees indicates the fulfilment of a box-ticking, image projection exercise but not much more. Although it might be easier to communicate planting trees rather than extracting oil through fine-tuned sustainable methods, the latter is far more important in the long run. Thus, the challenge lies in establishing an engaging way to convey this to consumers. Long-term investments in reducing pollutants and developing sustainable methods of harvesting resources is an authentic brand purpose for the oil sector that consumers can actually buy into and even trust. It might take 10 years, but in the long term, it will be entirely worth it.

True brand purpose requires corporate transparency of the sort that once previously felt uncomfortable. The underbelly of businesses must be exposed to extreme scrutiny – from supply chains all the way to environmental targets. Only then will consumers realise who the hollow operators really are and determine who is most worthy of their trust.

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