Welcome or not, this strange time in which we are currently living is a time for reflection for many. Never has the global commons shut down to this extent, leading to a collective reassessment of our role as people, as communities and as an international order and the impact we want to have. The same can be said for brands. The communications community has been resolutely aligned in emphasising that now is not the moment for marketing, but a time to contribute, meaningfully, to the greater good. As brands assess how they can practically and credibly do this, they are – whether they know it or not – considering their Purpose. At its heart, this is their reason for existence: why they matter to the world.
At this very nascent stage, we are starting to see three broad categories of answers to this challenge, and these answers are directing brand behaviour.
- We exist to use our innovative expertise to deliver for the world’s most pressing needs – organisations repurposing their existing activities or supply chains (and collaborating in unprecedented ways) to meet a pressing need (Repurposing);
- We exist to support communities – organisations using their assets or capabilities to support a community, big or small (Benevolence);
- We exist because of the value which our business already brings – organisations that have restructured their business in order to continue to deliver the same good or service, in a new way (Business adjustment).
There are a plethora of examples all of the above, with numbers growing every day, but a few worth pointing to include:
- Decathalon partnering to develop ventilator masks from scuba gear
- Ford, 3M and GE partnering to build respirators
- Brewdog making hand sanitiser
Notably, in this space, the power of the story and the meaningful impact it will have drives media. These stories are not brand content-heavy – they don’t need to be. These brands will be remembered for pace, innovation and collaboration when the world needed it most.
- In the UK, brands big and small have stepped in to provide heavily discounted goods and services to NHS workers
- Facebook has announced it will provide $300m (cash and credits) to small businesses in the countries where it operates
- Sipsmith drives donations to bartenders through purchases of its products
Here, branded content is invariably at the forefront of the conversation, as brands strive to advertise their offer to drive take-up. Coverage in this space tends to be more local, or vertical-specific, except when the brand or financial contribution is extraordinary in scale, or the offer is broad enough to warrant consumer coverage. These brands will be remembered for putting their – or their nation’s – values before profit, when communities needed it.
- Food delivery services have been quick to establish “no contact drop offs” as the new norm
- Children’s activities move online
- Supermarket shopping hours for the vulnerable
- For others, delivering vital products or services, this means ramping up production
Here, the story is collective, not individual brand activity. New societal norms are being established and brands are being noted as leaders, laggers or markers of nascent trends. These brands may not be widely celebrated for their activity, but have set a strong path for survival, which will be remembered and appreciated by their communities, employees and other key stakeholders. Equally, brands such as Ocado who struggle to adjust to the changed times, will be rightly or wrongly pilloried in the short term, until their adjustment is undertaken.
Inevitably, we have seen – and will continue to see – brands that go in the opposite direction. Sports Direct and Wetherspoons have faced national outrage as a result of their refusal to close UK operations in the face of government lockdown. As government expectations and social norms get ever more stringent over the coming weeks, organisations currently on the cusp – including many delivering national infrastructure projects – will be forced to decide which side they fall on.
The ramifications of the decisions brands are taking today and the impacts these decisions have will be played out far beyond the coming months. With unprecedented time to engage with the news, high standards of normative behaviour and some shining examples of purposeful activity, consumers will not be quick to forget who did what, when it mattered most. The majority are stepping up the challenge, marking a new age of truly purposeful brands, at a time when purpose has never been more important.