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The purpose of purpose in a post-pandemic world

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Most reasonable people would agree that we are living in “interesting times”, as the old proverb puts it.

A global pandemic, enforced lockdowns, an unprecedented economic slump, collapsing trust in our global leadership class, protests in the streets around the world about inequality, racism, authoritarianism and – still no barbers open.

Here in the marketing bubble, many commentators are energetically debating whether there is – or will be – a “new normal” emerging. From the always provocative Mark Ritson who believes we all need to “calm down” (I may have paraphrased a little, for the easily offended) to the always provocative Mary Portas, who believes we’re seeing a radical shift to “the kindness economy” where social capital and economic capital are fused in alignment. And all points in between, depending on who you care to listen to on any given day.

I confess that I don’t know if a “new normal” will emerge or not. Nor what it will look like if it does. But I do know that, right now, things certainly feel different from before and the future is very unclear for many brands and their leaders. Some brands are facing radically altered customer behaviours, such as airlines, cinemas and hotels. Some are embracing positive new opportunities, such as video-conferencing, home delivery and health brands. It feels like the ground is shifting beneath our feet on an almost daily basis and our normal navigation points are all awry.

The temptation for business leaders, faced with such unprecedented change, is of course to try to adapt to the prevailing conditions and thus preserve their businesses, their customer bases and their income streams. Indeed, there are stakeholders counting on them to do just that, so it’s no surprise that they feel under enormous pressure to re-examine everything and make changes, often on the hoof.

But I would counsel caution in at least one important area before making reactionary changes and that is in the area of brand purpose.

Purpose is truth

At Mission, we have been working hard with all sorts of clients across countries and sectors on Purpose for a number of years now. It seems to me that nothing that has transpired in these tumultuous recent months has changed our belief in this. Rather, it has strengthened it.

To restate, the brand purpose is the irreducible core of why a brand (or company) exists. What it’s goal is. What it stands for. And thus how it behaves, speaks, engages with the communities it is part of.

Truth remains the bedrock of a strong brand. Defining and communicating a brand purpose involves a deep dive into the soul of an organisation to divine a core truth or truths. It can be immediately obvious the moment you walk into an organisation (oftentimes the culture is a living embodiment of a strong brand purpose). Or it can take some digging to get to the true essence of a brand, especially one that is in a successful rut or has been resting on its laurels for a time. However, when you arrive at it, truth has to be at its core. While it can be motivating to set an aspirational purpose to help inspire the organisation to become the best version of itself, a purpose that gets too far ahead of reality is just a slogan and not a purpose at all. It has to be rooted in fundamental current truth, one that is recognised and recognisable by the people who work there and live it every day.

Your purpose is what you do, not what you say

We are seeing some interesting pushback on brands – even big, powerful ones like Nike, Apple, L’Oréal and Spotify – who are actively supporting the Black Lives Matter movement as part of their brand purpose yet are falling short in showing representation of black people at board level. In most cases, it’s not that their support (and funding) is not welcomed, but they are being asked to appraise their actions with their stated intent because they appear dissonant. Hopefully, these brands recognise this as genuinely constructive criticism which will help them become an even more effective member of the communities they are part of. And, in the process, an even better version of themselves and a better embodiment of their brand purpose.

Such developments do not, in my opinion, precipitate a fundamental review of the brand’s purpose. That hopefully remains valid, it’s just that the behaviours and actions are out of sync with the claims and the public voice. In the end, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that will determine how people see your brand. Leaders need to make sure that the reality reflects the core truth.

Two recent examples come to mind, from quite different sectors that I think demonstrate leaders holding their actions up to their brand purpose. Larry Fink, chief executive officer of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, in his annual letter to fellow chief execs, called for decisive leadership on sustainability and climate change within his sector, committing his own company to divest assets that have high sustainability risk and to make sustainability a key factor in future investment decisions. He also committed to real transparency around this issue, thus ensuring he would be held to account of delivering this commitment. This is no small beer. Mr Fink has been a big advocate of purpose-driven business but his double-down on the principles he espouses show an honest evaluation of his business and a willingness to literally put his money where his mouth is. Hopefully, other big houses, such as Vanguard, will get on board with this initiative too.

Another recent example is Danone, the giant French food group, with over €25bn of sales globally. Danone could be fairly said to be a pioneer of purpose-driven business, having first laid out its belief in “responsible capitalism” way back in 1968. But proof that it’s alive and still actively driving the business came just recently when the current chief executive, Emmanuel Faber, announced a €300m fund to help fragile suppliers during the pandemic, donated vast amounts of their Volvic and Evian water to companies making sanitizer, extended healthcare and benefits to workers and gave employees in factories and warehouses in France a €1,000 bonus.

Then he personally drove 600km, for 14 hours, to go visit several of his factories, amid the lockdown, to make sure his colleagues felt valued and connected. “It is important to me that there are not two companies — one working from home and one at work,” he said. “I wanted to show that Danone is united.” I find that inspiring: it makes me think positively of Danone, changing it from a faceless Euro-goliath to a human company full of real people trying their best to do the right thing for each other.

Purpose is catching

Further evidence that purpose-driven thinking is beginning to prevail, even in the most profit-oriented corridors of corporate power, came recently when the Business Roundtable, an association of 181 chief executives of major firms in the US, announced its redefinition of the purpose of a corporation, shifting the focus from shareholder primacy to that of all stakeholders, including employees, suppliers and community stakeholders. This signifies a major change and may be a step towards that “Kindness Economy” that Mary Portas portends.

Undoubtedly, these times are unprecedented, so if a review of your purpose reveals that you truly have lost your way then, yes, a root and branch renewal may be called for. Just be careful to recognise any core values that you do have and don’t throw them out in haste. Better to build on a solid foundation, even if it is not 100% complete, than to have to start with a greenfield site. Communicating and delivering purpose takes time and patience, so a running start is invaluable as long as it’s rooted in truth.

Evolve but do not tinker

As with most things, evolution is healthy but endless tinkering is fatal when it comes to brand purpose. If you find yourself tweaking your brand purpose every couple of years then that is a clear warning sign that you don’t really have a purpose at all, you just have a marketing slogan. If so, you need to go back to the drawing board and dig deeper, preferably with the help of an expert or two.

A true purpose endures over time, embodying core values and truths about who you are and what you represent. How these qualities manifest themselves to the market, your customers, your team members and others will undoubtedly change with the prevailing market and societal context.

For example, Virgin’s brand purpose has always been to disrupt established market monopolies for the benefit of the customer. That core truth has manifested itself in a diverse array of products from colas to condoms to airlines. Even within those sectors, the specific products, tactics and marketing has changed with the times in order to stay relevant and engaging. But the purpose of the brand remains and is undeniably a core asset of the Virgin organisation, even in these difficult times.

Likewise, Nike. Its long stated purpose was to treat everyone as an athlete, regardless of ability, income, creed or colour. The Nike story of course is an ongoing partwork, a zig-zag rather than a straight line of evolution, with several missteps along the way. Yet their core belief infuses all that they do, from the apparel to their social programmes, from their athlete sponsorships to their recent overt support for greater equality, of all types, in our societies. Their purpose is so strong that it has helped them weather difficult times when they have been found wanting and held accountable. It has evolved but it is a great example of a brand purpose that has remained clear and true, still guiding the company’s actions today, 56 years after it was founded.

Purpose as a bedrock, internally and externally

Who knows what the future holds for brands? What seems likely is that any new normal requires a state of constant, fast adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances. Doing that successfully, while running a major business, is very tough: if absolutely everything is in flux, it’s easy to lose your bearings and find yourself a long way from where you wanted to be.

Having a clear, strong, true brand purpose can give brand leaders – indeed, everyone in an enterprise – a touchstone that allows you to navigate stormy conditions better. Remember, to all intents and purposes these days, your brand is your culture and vice versa, so Purpose is as valuable internally as it is externally, for all your stakeholders.

Finally, hidden in these difficult times, are the opportunities to build real and lasting brand equity. How a brand conducts itself right now shapes how people think and feel about it, possibly for a long time. History has shown that people remember others conduct, especially notable positive or negative conduct, at times of real difficulty.

Living our brand purpose with dignity and integrity right now may be the most important thing we can do to lay the foundations of sustained future success for our businesses.

James Clifton, group chief executive, The Mission Group

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