Purpose in a Pandemic

By Laura Peñalosa, Senior Manager, Business Strategy at Public

Two people crossing street at a distance from each other with the words 'Purpose in a Pandemic: How great brands are responding to the communities they serve'

Never before has purpose been at the top of the agenda for so many brands across the world, as it is today. In a few short weeks, we’ve witnessed a massive positive shift in the way that brands are behaving, communicating and serving their communities. Will it last past the current crisis? Only time will tell, but it’s heartening to see so many CEOs taking stances, consumers standing by employees for fairer treatment, and business models shifting in order to adapt and respond to these new realities. Now is not the time to stand on the sidelines, nor a time to misstep, but a time to act quickly and impactfully. Once when we’re on the other side of the storm, consumers will remember how brands responded during the crisis, and they will do so with their wallets. Here are a few lessons that brands should consider if they want to stay top of mind for consumers (and for the right reasons):  

Today´s triple bottom line: People, People and People

Consumers are hypervigilant as to how brands are treating their people during these times, and they are quick to call out any missteps. Closing your stores and continuing to pay your employees is extremely important, but it’s not enough. For example, Aritzia was amongst the first to share their commitment to employees and their families with their Community Relief Fund, and this was applauded. Walmart hired 150,000 new employees and invested $500 million in staff bonuses to help alleviate some of the economic struggles. On the other hand, brands like Amazon and Adidas have received significant backlash due to their employee treatment, to the point that workers  have staged walkouts, strikes and sickouts to demand hazard pay and better health protections. All of this to say, if you’re looking to do one thing right during this pandemic, your best bet is to take care of your people before turning your gaze outwardly.  

The brands we expected to step up are not necessarily those who did

It’s interesting to compare the purpose landscape prior to COVID-19 to the one now. We would have expected purpose-driven brands like Everlane and Patagonia to be paving the way during this crisis, but surprisingly, it’s been less expected brands leading the way. We’ve seen brands like Dyson leaning into purpose like never before by developing brand new respirators to meet increasing demands, HP using 3-D printers to quickly produce medical equipment, and LVMH being the first to transform their perfume factories into hand sanitizer production facilities. The impact landscape is drastically changing, and by bringing more players into the space, we are raising the bar of expectations that consumers and employees will have. The floor is open for anyone looking to step up. Now is the time to take a meaningful stance, make a bold commitment and innovate with purpose (and join the rest of the global leaders in doing so).  

Courageous and vulnerable leadership 

COVID-19 has given consumers a chance to connect with business leaders in more human and authentic ways than ever before. As they navigate complex business challenges, ranging from supply and production logistics, to HR and employment issues, to questions about how best to market and communicate in these uncertain times, leaders are also facing many of the same overwhelming struggles that we citizens are: uncertainty and fear for their own health, and for those in their care. Marriott’s CEO shared an emotional speech to his employees, and it was received with acceptance, humility and respect. Not only because he committed to forgoing a salary for the remainder of the year while also cutting the salaries of his executive team by 50 percent, but also because he managed to connect to his team clearly, directly and in a timely manner – something many others have been missing. Comcast’s CEO has been another incredible example of great leadership. He was quick to act with initiatives across the board, from expanding business offerings to underserved communities, creating educational tools for home-schooling, committing $500 million to support employees and donating 100% of his salary to local charities. Coming from an industry that doesn’t often lean into purpose in a significant way, this was remarkable to witness, and hopefully a new baseline for others to surpass. The way you lead during pressing times not only speaks volumes about you as a person but gives your consumer a meaningful connection to your brand. This is the time where brand values such as transparency and authenticity can either be questioned or brought to life. 

Business pivots 

Lastly, it’s important to highlight the innovative shifts that have occurred as companies pivot their business models to stay afloat and respond proactively to community and consumer needs. Call it survival of the fittest, but this adaptability, when done right, can truly pay off. For example, OpenTable successfully swapped out restaurant reservations to grocery store line up reservations.  Lyft is now transporting fewer people (aside from doctors and nurses) and more items–things like medical supplies and groceries for those who need them. Airbnb has shifted from hosting travellers to providing safe spaces for frontline workers to temporarily live while keeping their families safe. This is the time to innovate with purpose. A time to connect with your consumers, understand their current needs amidst today’s challenges and decide what role your business has license to play within that.

It’s clear that consumers are taking note of how brands and leaders are responding – and will remember those that acted quickly and innovatively to support their communities, as well as those that didn’t. It’s our belief that as distancing restrictions are lifted, and the economy begins to rebound, consumers (and employees) will continue to support those brands that made a positive impact during COVID-19, and perhaps even reject those that didn’t.

For more COVID-19 brand commitments we find exceptional, take a look here.