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Don’t Cut Purpose, Lead With It

12/2/2020
— Kass Sells, Global COO/President of International 

Communicating in a time of crisis and uncertainty

When writer and director Julio Vincent Gambuto called the COVID-19 pandemic “The Great Pause”, he was right. The pandemic has given us a moment to pause and reflect on how things were pre-COVID, and it’s giving us the opportunity to demand more clarity in our lives and stronger direction from our leaders.

The world is ready for action and true change must begin now. There is a clear opportunity for brand communicators to double down on the power of purpose, acting as a force for good. Communications can fuel progress. It can bring hope and create opportunity. This all begins with authenticity of purpose. As the pandemic takes us into our next normal, I want to share five ways businesses can lead with their purpose even during a time of crisis, integrating it into their business strategy and making it the red thread through their communications strategies.

1. Stay true to your purpose

The word purpose has become a buzzword for a reason. When it comes to establishing your business’s purpose, start at the start. Your purpose should be something you go back to because it’s at the core of what your business does and why it began.

In our proprietary research with Quartz, 65% of leaders say having a clearly defined purpose is more important than it was a year ago for their organizations’ success. Your purpose should be something you always lean into when communicating authentically with your customers, clients and colleagues. Even in times of crisis, purpose is imperative to business success, but must remain authentic. When UK broadcaster ITV aired a performance by dance group Diversity highlighting their struggles as Black men, the channel received more than 25,000 complaints. Despite the criticism, ITV didn’t back down from its support of the group. Its position shouldn’t have come as a surprise. On both social and print media, the company’s statement of support links to its purpose statement, that “we are changed by what we see. Just as we are changed when we are seen.” In the age of COVID, the pressure to lead with purpose has become more pronounced, and this change is here to stay.

2. Be prepared to act

Today, a clear business setup has never been more important. Your purpose has the power to help you manage risk and uncertainty, creating a foundation that can propel your business forward. Use it. Think about how you can educate and assist your employees, clients and customers when a crisis hits, ensuring all health measures are being executed, too. A good business continuity plan must also look beyond initial steps and consider the impact of its own implementation.

A great example of a brand acting on its purpose is global consumer health and hygiene company Reckitt Benckiser (RB). RB used its resources and infrastructure to extraordinary effect. It has been able to help 4.5 million school children through its Dettol Curriculum, leading to a 10% decline in diarrhoea cases, and 52% of cities across India now have increased access to toilets. Pankaj Duhan, chief marketing officer of RB Health states “Success depends on making an impact at scale in a sustainable manner. Many pretender brands fall [when it comes to] scale.” RB’s action still aligns to the core of the business and this foundation has allowed it to be nimble when India needs it most.

3. Speak the truth, be clear

The world is full of misinformation and our usual sources of truth — news outlets, politicians — may now seem less reliable than they once did. For this reason, it’s important to establish a measure twice, cut once approach to comms. Communications leaders need to now step up, providing valuable insight and sound counsel, leading the way when others may fail. In our Brands in Motion global study, 83% of respondents believe brands could be capable of providing stability. Consumers expect the brands they support to be on the same page and the pressure to lead with purpose is more pronounced than ever.  

Cosmetics company Avon has always used its platform to recognize and empower women, and when the pandemic hit and nationwide lockdowns were imposed, that was a critical moment for Avon in India to raise awareness of domestic violence against girls and women. The company’s #IsolatedNotAlone campaign has been a call to action for policy leaders to increase funding for such a critical issue. The campaign reached 2.6 million people through social media, with over 15,000 clients receiving help and $122,500 in grants. Avon’s work proves your company’s purpose can help address issues where others may have failed. Domestic violence is a difficult subject; however, Avon’s purpose and values allowed it to discuss an uncomfortable subject with honesty and transparency, delivering tangible results to women and young girls.

4. Be human to the core

This is an opportunity for brands to reveal what they really are and what they truly stand for. Our Brands in Motion global study showed that, in times of crisis, businesses have a responsibility to support the communities they operate in and act as a stabilizing force in uncertain times. From grassroots projects to climate change, your consumers are investing in your purpose just as much as your product. Brands and stakeholders must move away from CSR box-ticking strategies and think about how they’re listening to their consumers. What are they asking for and how can you authentically communicate your commitment to meet their demands? With 53% of respondents wanting brands to address environmental problems in both local communities and globally, and 74% expecting brands to take a stand on the issues that matter to them, you can use your purpose now to show what you’re really made of. Clients and customers expect it, and in the end, good governance pays dividends.

5. Clear communications starts at home

How you communicate with your employees during times of uncertainty, will help employee engagement and pave the way for better relationships in the future. A massive digital shift has meant the way we connected with our employees has shifted and the shift in the way companies engage with your employees must be recognized.

Drumbeat, HSBC’s Commercial Banking (CMB)’s internal employee newsletter, was created in 2019, and since then it has galvanized the way employees connect with the business. An informative hub of storytelling from around the company, it accomplished a 100% increase in clicks to employee resources over the year. Our recent survey with Quartz showed that 77% of respondents agree brands have a moral obligation to engage with social issues that impact their workforce. At the beginning of the pandemic, the newsletter saw a 7% rise in open rates. This further emphasizes the importance of company leadership and consistent communication during times of crisis.

One thing’s for certain. The world as we knew it has changed, forever. As our markets adapt, so too must our brands and communications experts. As we move into the next normal, and the next next normal, keeping these five principles in mind will be essential as we move from survival mode to thriving, keeping both your purpose record and your revenue moving in the right direction. For those unclear on how or where to start, look within your organization and use that to define what you stand for. Cutting your purpose is no longer an option. Finding your purpose and leading with it is the real way forward.

Photo by Getty Images/Yawar Nazir