JvM Green Papers #6
PURPOSE NOT POSE
Why authenticity will be so important to brands in the future
Related Expertise:Corporate Communications, Brands
When the virus arrived, everything ground to a halt. Manufacturing, tourism, bars, and restaurants have been forced to reinvent themselves – and with them the communications industry. But what is it doing instead?
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Coronavirus is like an earthquake whose effects have been felt not just at an economic, social, and political level, but in the lives of every single individual. “COVID-19 is the most radical decelerator of our time,” the famous sociologist and deceleration theorist Hartmut Rosa recently said in an interview with the German newspaper Tagesspiegel.
These days, whenever you go out you’ll notice that the few passers-by you see on the streets look withdrawn and lost in thought. The standstill brought about by coronavirus has prompted people to pause and take stock. Many seem to be asking the same questions:
What really matters in life?
Who is part of the solution in times of upheaval?
Which companies and brands are offering help and guidance?
The expectations now being placed on politicians and businesses, including the communications industry, are nothing new; long before coronavirus, civil society organizations were calling on companies to work toward a fairer, livable, ecologically sustainable world. The September 2019 b4p trends study found that 77% of respondents prefer buying products from socially responsible brands. Commitments to social responsibility have been taken up right across the political spectrum, from socialists to greens to conservatives.
But the corona outbreak appears to have intensified the scrutiny that businesses face. In times of crisis, society expects companies to make a constructive contribution to improving people’s lives – and to explain what purpose they serve beyond making profits.
Even before the crisis, marketing executives were increasingly being tasked with giving brands a deeper meaning, a true purpose. Purpose is about more than traditional CSR activities and attitude campaigns. A strong purpose is closely linked to a company’s core areas of expertise, firmly embedded in all departments, and sets out a clear route. Formulating a purpose can unlock incredible potential, whether in conjunction with a vision or mission or as part of a brand model like Simon Sinek’s WHY–HOW–WHAT approach.
According to a BITC Responsible Business Tracker report, 86% of 64 companies that were surveyed in the UK said they had an official purpose statement, including Siemens, KPMG, and Boots. However, 83% had not considered what this meant across departments, and just 57% engage investors in discussion on their purpose. (Responsible Business Tracker® Insights: Raising the Bar – October 2019; Responsible Business Tracker® 2019/2020 Insights Reports – May 2020) These studies show that although many companies have purpose statements, far too often they’re developed without looking beyond the marketing department and end up being detached from the company’s actual purpose. So it’s unsurprising that purposes are often merely poses, something that gives a company a temporary PR boost during a storytelling campaign but in truth is completely hollow.
The crisis has been a reality test.
Following the outbreak, YouTuber Microsoft Sam posted a video (“Every COVID-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same,” April 2020) that reveals a structural failing in the way many companies treat attitude and purpose. Driven by a kneejerk panic reaction or a feeling that they had to do something, a whole host of businesses produced commercials with the same piano music, the same keywords, the same messages. Interchangeable, devoid of ideas, inauthentic, and completely disconnected from the actual core of their brands.
Sam’s video quickly racked up over 1.5 million views.
THE PANDEMIC AS A PROOF POINT
Consumers’ expectations of companies have changed; they are now much more ethically and morally conscious. A simple exchange of money and service is no longer enough for many people, especially if they’re supposed to feel unconditional loyalty to a brand. This development has been accentuated in the current pandemic.
In Kantar’s April 2020 COVID-19 Barometer, over 25,000 consumers in over 30 markets were asked about their attitudes, media habits, and expectations during the pandemic. The global survey revealed that 77% of consumers expect brands to help and support them in their day-to-day lives during the crisis. (Kantar, COVID-19 Barometer: Consumer attitudes, media habits and expectations, April 2020)
To move beyond mere “purpose-washing” and achieve actual impact, companies need a purpose rooted in the true, motivating core of their identity. It’s important to communicate this purpose both externally via campaigns and internally to staff and stakeholders, so as to provide a clear sense of direction and allow the company to act flexibly yet authentically.
This is the only way that companies can properly harness momentum while staying true to their brand, even in unsettling times. Brands get momentum through having the dynamism and zeitgeist factor needed to respond effectively and appropriately to consumer needs, trends, and current events. Momentum not only astounds with its immediacy, but has a lasting impact.
Take the case of Nike. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the sportswear manufacturer repurposed fabric intended for its Air Max soles to make face masks. From one day to the next, in a time of national emergency, it took action true to its brand purpose (“to unite the world through sport to create a healthy planet, active communities and an equal playing field for all”) as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Nike’s Play Inside, Play for the World ad encourages people to show solidarity by observing social distancing when exercising, while the video campaign Never Too Far Down, likewise building on the brand’s core and responding to the emergency, encourages perseverance in the face of adversity.
Nike has also donated US$17.5 million in COVID-19 relief. In Germany, it is supporting the Red Cross and local sports communities. Alongside the many initiatives it has launched during the crisis, in the US the sportswear giant is focusing donations on the communities where its own employees live and work.
Another example is Dove. The skincare products manufacturer, whose purpose is to promote more realistic beauty standards (“Real Beauty”), has taken its promise to the next level during the crisis, with actions such as donating care packages to healthcare staff and its Courage Is Beautiful video campaign positively reinforcing the brand.
Brands like Nike and Dove are part of a bigger social whole. They are engaged with the world around them and are able both to set things in motion and to respond to external stimuli and developments. And people notice and appreciate this. Half of respondents to one international survey think that some brands are responding to the crisis more quickly and effectively than the government. (Edelman Trust Barometer 2020: Special Report: Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic)
These two brands demonstrate that it’s possible in times of social crisis to deliver on a strong, purpose-driven promise in a way that is credible, constructive and authentic.
STAYING ON COURSE EVEN IN A CRISIS
A few weeks ago, the death of the African American George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a wave of global activism. Demonstrations have spread to over 75 US cities, and anti-racism protests have been held in all major European cities. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators around the world have expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The hashtag #BlackoutTuesday, begun by the US music industry, went viral. It urged people and businesses to not produce any content for one day, and instead focus attention on the injustices faced by Black people. The hashtag was used over 29 million times on Instagram. At the time of writing (June 15, 2020), almost 18 million people have signed the Justice for George Floyd petition, making it the most-signed petition in change.org’s history.
Alongside a host of big-name CEOs and business leaders who have voiced support for the protests on social media and within their own companies, there have been companies showing how action can be taken at the level of brands too.
Building on its purpose and slogan (“Just Do It”), Nike posted a video called “For once, Don’t Do It.” These words appear in white against a black background, followed by a series of messages such as “Don’t turn your back on racism” and “Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us.” The video supports the protests and makes the brand part of the movement.
It was accompanied by an email to Nike employees from new CEO John Donahoe, in which he made clear the company’s responsibility in the fight against racism:
“Let me be as clear as I can: Nike is opposed to bigotry. We are opposed to hatred and inequality in all its forms, indirect and overt. While Nike cannot solve injustice, I believe we have a responsibility to work toward addressing it to the best of our ability.”
Nike Inc. also announced that it would be providing US$40 million over the next four years to support the Black community in the USA; the commitment is a joint effort by the Nike, Jordan, and Converse brands. On top of that, the Nike Impact Report transparently documents the brand’s progress on its promises and purpose, thus underscoring its commitment to continuity.
Another example is Ben & Jerry’s. In response to the death of George Floyd, the ice cream manufacturer posted a message calling on white America to “acknowledge its privilege” and “dismantle white supremacy.”
We Must Dismantle White Supremacy.Ben & Jerry's
It also made specific demands of the federal government and Department of Justice: “Instead of calling for the use of aggressive tactics on protesters, the President must take the first step by disavowing white supremacists and nationalist groups that overtly support him, and by not using his Twitter feed to promote and normalize their ideas and agendas.”
This isn’t the first time Ben & Jerry’s has done something like this. The US ice cream company, which describes itself as “Leading with progressive values across our business,” has a long-established three-part mission committing it to fair products, social responsibility, and sustainable financial growth. It also has a long track record of political activism, and has engaged in debates on social inequality, climate change, and refugee rights. Back in 2016, the company publicly protested against structural racism and has been supporting the Black Lives Matter movement ever since. The same year, co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were arrested at a Democracy Awakening protest against money in politics.
The example of Ben & Jerry’s shows that continuity requires consistency; six weeks ago, when the coronavirus ads were at their high point, the company refrained from putting out any knee-jerk campaigns. Instead, it stuck resolutely to its purpose and collected 15,000 votes in support of the MORE (Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement) Act. The company drew attention to the fact that people are still being arrested for marijuana possession even in the states where the drug is legal, with the problem disproportionately affecting Black people (who are 264% more likely to be arrested). Previously, the company highlighted unequal power relations in the legal cannabis industry, where 81% of business owners are white and just 4.3% are African American. (ACLU Research Report: A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, 2020; Marijuana Business Daily Survey 2017)
PAUSE FOR A MOMENT AND BE HONEST
The example of Ben & Jerry’s shows that brands and companies shouldn’t try and respond to every single event, but rather should focus on staying on course even in turbulent times. A global study by Kantar shows that this is what many consumers expect, with 65% of respondents saying that they thought brands should stick to their values even in times of crisis. (Kantar, COVID-19 Barometer, March 2020)
We need to pause for a moment and observe, and then think what to do. Listen and respond, rather than implementing and optimizingHartmut Rosa
Hartmut Rosa, who believes this is how a transformation, a new paradigm shift, can begin in times like this. (ZEITmagazin, April 2020) But it’s not just individuals and societies that have an opportunity to transform themselves. Brands too have a chance to make themselves fit for an unpredictable future that will demand a high level of commitment. Executives whose companies have defined a purpose need to pause for a moment and ask themselves honestly whether this purpose meets the following criteria:
Is it the basis for the company’s overall strategy, rather than just a marketing tool?
Does it aim to respond to economic, social, and ecological challenges in a credible way?
Does it provide a clear direction both internally (for employees and stakeholders) and externally (for individuals and society)?
Does it offer sufficient flexibility for specific actions and new benchmarks to be developed?
Is it enduring enough to be adapted to new trends and issues?
Developing a suitable purpose requires an internal process that extends right through the company. But even once it’s done, you can’t rest on your laurels. Continuity is key: just like you need to keep working a muscle if you want to build it up, companies need to understand that a purpose likewise needs space and time to flourish. It can’t be imposed on an organization from the top down, but has to be embraced and taken to heart by everyone involved.
A purpose is never static, but can be extended into new areas and perspectives by companies and communications teams that are willing and able to adapt. In an increasingly complex world, brand and purpose need to be viewed as a unified whole, with agility built in from the ground up. This process can involve iterative development cycles, continuous learning experiments, and interdisciplinary perspectives.
It’s about constantly trying out new things, both inward- and outward-facing. At the intersection between companies and their staff and stakeholders, between brands and their environment, between individual and collective, between self-perception and perception by others.
Only then will purpose be more than a pose. Only then will attitude translate into action.