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Four Ways to Future-Proof Your Purpose

12/1/2020
— Gillian Daines, Director 

Why it’s never been more important to set up your brand purpose for long-term survival

As we move into 2021, there are varying perspectives about our "new normal," but one thing largely agreed on is that 2020 has been a year of accelerated change. Businesses that were dipping their toes into ecommerce and digital transformation have jumped into the deep end. And those that haven’t have been left behind.

2020 has created new questions for businesses’ organizational purposes. Have the needs of our stakeholders changed? And if so, is this a long or a short-term change? How does living in a period of heightened pressure affect our purpose, and most important, how do we protect it?

In a recent roundtable hosted by The Drum, communications leaders from WE, Accenture, NatWest, Deloitte Digital, real estate brand JLL and identity platform Yoti talked about how they are pushing purpose forward now, and how the challenges we’re facing can present new opportunities.

Business strategy and brand purpose must be tightly aligned

The discussion participants agreed that it’s not just about the peripheral good and charitable activity your business supports. It’s about your value as a commercial enterprise, ensuring your positive impacts are aligned with the day to day of your business. The temptation in a "crisis" moment or a hot topic dominating news cycles is to jump on the purpose bandwagon. Before your brand communicates on events such as the pandemic or Black Lives Matter, ask yourself "why now" and "why us?" There’s a clear rule for purpose leaders to follow — stay aligned. Purpose has to connect back to why a business exists and the value it brings, so for a business to drive real change and communicate authentically, it’s purpose activity must bring that rationale to the fore, with commercial expertise and resources leveraged for the right reasons.

Still, it isn’t always easy for leaders to define their purpose, and harder yet to take tangible, measurable action. In our research with Quartz, 65% of leaders say having a clearly defined purpose is more important than it was a year ago for their organization’s overall success, but only 15.7% have plans to invest in aligning their purpose or mission to their business strategy.

For the financial sector, 2020 revealed an unexpected opportunity to spotlight brands’ purposeful leadership. After years of negative public perception around banking, the response to COVID-19 from banks, particularly in the UK, has helped repair their reputation, putting people first and using their resources to help with finance literacy programs and budgeting advice.

Professional services company Accenture launched its purpose strategy in October 2020 with a clear statement: to deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity. Real estate business JLL launched its purpose strategy earlier this year with the dedication to shape the future of real estate for a better world. In both cases, the businesses have aligned their purpose strategy with their business strategy — with topics including digital transformation and an internal focus on D&I for Accenture, and a spotlight on environmental impacts and sustainable practice for JLL. And this has become consumers’ rising expectation. In our Brands in Motion global study, 40% surveyed say brands should focus on making local communities better. By bringing positive social goals together with their commercial ones, brands can deliver a winning strategy for all stakeholders — from customers and employees through to investors and the wider community.

Agility is critical

Amy Fuller, chief marketing and communications officer at Accenture, noted the promise at the heart of your purpose remains, while the way that promise is delivered can respond to the here and now. The key is to remain agile — but focused. One way to do this is to pay attention to the people you want to connect with.

Recent research from Deloitte Digital has shown that although we are living in a fast-paced digital transformation, people want their interactions to feel more human. Although there is an appetite for greater digital accessibility, people don’t want to lose touch of empathy. This is reflected in our own Brands in Motion global study, which shows that although 69% of people feel that technology is moving too fast, 75% of people continue to embrace technology to learn how to better their lives.

As we move beyond the pandemic, there is an opportunity to stay in touch with the people who make up your brand. In our survey with Quartz, 62% of respondents said the most effective purpose leaders are those who listen and embolden others to drive positive change. By regularly asking consumers, clients and employees for feedback — and paying attention to their changes in behavior — brands can transform insight into action, being led by their most important stakeholders.

Your people power purpose

The roundtable participants were also unanimous in agreeing that internal communications and engagement are vital to developing and living any purpose strategy. To achieve purpose goals, leadership must come from the top, and belief and ambition must come from all employees. Our Quartz research also revealed that 54% believe collective purpose can start from anywhere. Therefore, it’s imperative for your employees to feel engaged with your business because employees will eventually connect with customers and clients. If your purpose isn’t truly felt internally, its authenticity will struggle to be communicated externally. When your employees feel empowered to champion your purpose, better decisions can be made, more voices can be heard and innovative ideas can be shared.

Be trustworthy and transparent

The final lesson our business leaders are keen to share is accountability. Energy and ambition are important but will become meaningless unless tangible progress is well communicated. One recent example of leadership in the area of measurement and communication is Microsoft’s Zero Carbon project. In partnership with WE, Microsoft has maturely approached and respected its stakeholders by sharing technical detail about achieving its zero carbon goals and how progress will be measured. Consumers are more sophisticated than ever and can spot empty purpose promises, so honest feedback on progress — even acknowledging failure — will be central for purpose leaders.

Duncan Young, director of Business Communications at NatWest, noted the true test is ahead, when the focus on the pandemic subsides and society adapts to the next normal. When you stay true to your purpose, aligning it to your business’s core identity, thriving through challenging times will be easier. The business case to future-proof your purpose is clear. What are you waiting for?