Finding our Purpose in a Post-pandemic World

— Gillian Daines 

Since COVID-19 reached pandemic levels, we’ve seen businesses and brands from across all sectors lead with purpose and take fast, effective action to support society. From telecoms giant BT ensuring people stay connected with loved ones, to Burberry fast-tracking the delivery of surgical masks to the NHS, brands have been showing up in a way that’s human to the core.

It is the right thing to do, of course, and vital for brands that want to remain relevant. Consumers today expect nothing less. Research in 2019 from Accenture showed that 53% of consumers disappointed with a company’s words or actions on a social issue complain about it. Forty-seven percent will walk away in frustration, and 17% will never come back.

But the pandemic has also highlighted how dipping your toe into social responsibility, without proper thought, planning and — at worst — genuine positive intent, can be incredibly damaging. The Guardian published a scathing roast of BAE systems, which proudly lauded its ventilator ‘to aid treatment in the coronavirus pandemic’, even using Carol Vorderman to front its PR, glossing over the fact that the ventilators, in the end, went nowhere. This ‘coronawashing’ PR stunt resulted in the Guardian pointing out the $21bn in sales in 2018 made by BAE — 95% of them to military customers — including the company’s Typhoon and Tornado aircraft, which ‘have been key to devastating Saudi-led attacks on Yemen, which have killed thousands of civilians and contributed to what the UN calls a “humanitarian catastrophe”.’ Talk about a rushed PR initiative backfiring.

So, the simple lesson is not to jump on a PR bandwagon. But as the panic around coronavirus begins to recede and headlines on other topics edge back into the media, how do businesses with a genuine desire to make a positive impact on society navigate the way public attitudes to corporate purpose have shifted?

Many of us will release a collective sigh of relief when we can return to work, send our kids back to school, and start to see friends and family again. But we will not be returning to the same world. Many businesses will not have survived the shock of sudden closure, and those that have will be facing a new world — for better and for worse.

When the longer-term consequences of the global health crisis and social lockdown begin to show, true corporate Purpose will be needed more than ever.

40% of consumers from our Brands in Motion global study say brands should focus on making local communities better and 50% say they should focus on local and global issues. Businesses able to invest in their local and global communities, to build them back up to full strength, have a responsibility to do so. Because without their support, our economy will struggle for longer and more people will face genuine hardship, here in the UK and worldwide.

So, what should businesses do? When responding to the immediate crisis, the need has often been clear. Alcohol brands are supplying hand sanitiser; Coke is using its logistics and supply chains to get drinks to frontline workers. We need those things now. But supporting society post-pandemic may feel more complicated. Businesses will need to balance reacting to external factors with staying true to their core brand, and continuing to meet the expectations of customers, employees and shareholders in the longer term.

As we move from immediate crisis to creating a sustained support network for recovery, what should businesses be thinking about?  

Only you can do you: Every brand is unique. To be sustainable, a business must have a USP — and that’s what should drive its purpose agenda. The pandemic has seen businesses embrace their unique strengths more than ever, and that should continue. Only by considering its unique product, its network, the skills and ambitions of its employees, and the passion of its leadership can a business find its real purpose. Where partnerships have been established or a need identified, think about how that could evolve longer term. Identify the gaps where others in your market are not stepping in, and where you could.

Collaborate with experts: When it comes to relief efforts, partner with subject-matter experts. For example, charities are facing a crisis. Sector bodies estimate that charities in the UK will miss out on at least £4.3bn of income in the first quarter of the year. Couple this with increased demand on services for many as public funding is cut and the number of people needing support increases, and there is a clear opportunity for businesses with resources that want to partner with experts. But don’t rush in and go with the first cause that pulls the CEO’s heartstrings. Choosing the right charity partner can be a tricky business. It’s vital to ensure reciprocal benefit on both sides and strong engagement with the brand for it to really work.

Guts over glamour: Leading with purpose creates tangible and long-term impact, and it means taking action that supports society. Is it a thousand employees taking a day’s volunteering, which would create some lovely Instagram content? Is it a capital investment that puts your name on the wall? There’s nothing wrong with either, but maybe the right solution is quieter, more subtle. What really matters is being able to evaluate your investment and find proof that you’ve moved people to positive action.

Evolve for the better: The way we access products and services, the way we interact with each other, the way we work — all these things may have changed forever. Where these changes are forcing businesses to adapt quickly, there’s opportunity to build socially responsible programmes from the ground up. Seeing a huge increase in ecommerce? Make sure your packaging and supply chain is as sustainable as possible from the start. Engaging with more customers remotely? Make sure your channels are as accessible as possible for people of all abilities. With change comes opportunity, and the smart cookies will seize the chance to make a positive impact on society at the same time as the bottom line.

There’s going to be continued uncertainty for several months. But one thing is certain: When it comes to businesses stepping up and showing real purpose, the best of us have shifted expectations of what can — and should — be done forever. For the rest, the opportunity to make a change in our new world is there for the taking.