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The purpose of purpose in a post-pandemic world

The Drum 29 Jun 2020 04:19
By James Clifton-29 June 2020 17:19pm

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Most reasonable people would agree that we are living in “interesting times”, as the old proverb puts it.

A global pandemic, enforced lockdowns, an unprecedented economic slump, collapsing trust in our global leadership class, protests in the streets around the world about inequality, racism, authoritarianism and – still no barbers open.

Here in the marketing bubble, many commentators are energetically debating whether there is – or will be – a “new normal” emerging. From the always provocative Mark Ritson who believes we all need to “calm down” (I may have paraphrased a little, for the easily offended) to the always provocative Mary Portas, who believes we’re seeing a radical shift to “the kindness economy” where social capital and economic capital are fused in alignment. And all points in between, depending on who you care to listen to on any given day.

The temptation for business leaders, faced with such unprecedented change, is of course to try to adapt to the prevailing conditions and thus preserve their businesses, their customer bases and their income streams. Indeed, there are stakeholders counting on them to do just that, so it’s no surprise that they feel under enormous pressure to re-examine everything and make changes, often on the hoof.

Purpose is truth

To restate, the brand purpose is the irreducible core of why a brand (or company) exists. What it’s goal is. What it stands for. And thus how it behaves, speaks, engages with the communities it is part of.

Your purpose is what you do, not what you say

Such developments do not, in my opinion, precipitate a fundamental review of the brand’s purpose. That hopefully remains valid, it’s just that the behaviours and actions are out of sync with the claims and the public voice. In the end, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do that will determine how people see your brand. Leaders need to make sure that the reality reflects the core truth.

Another recent example is Danone, the giant French food group, with over €25bn of sales globally. Danone could be fairly said to be a pioneer of purpose-driven business, having first laid out its belief in “responsible capitalism” way back in 1968. But proof that it’s alive and still actively driving the business came just recently when the current chief executive, Emmanuel Faber, announced a €300m fund to help fragile suppliers during the pandemic, donated vast amounts of their Volvic and Evian water to companies making sanitizer, extended healthcare and benefits to workers and gave employees in factories and warehouses in France a €1,000 bonus.

Purpose is catching

Undoubtedly, these times are unprecedented, so if a review of your purpose reveals that you truly have lost your way then, yes, a root and branch renewal may be called for. Just be careful to recognise any core values that you do have and don’t throw them out in haste. Better to build on a solid foundation, even if it is not 100% complete, than to have to start with a greenfield site. Communicating and delivering purpose takes time and patience, so a running start is invaluable as long as it’s rooted in truth.

As with most things, evolution is healthy but endless tinkering is fatal when it comes to brand purpose. If you find yourself tweaking your brand purpose every couple of years then that is a clear warning sign that you don’t really have a purpose at all, you just have a marketing slogan. If so, you need to go back to the drawing board and dig deeper, preferably with the help of an expert or two.

For example, Virgin’s brand purpose has always been to disrupt established market monopolies for the benefit of the customer. That core truth has manifested itself in a diverse array of products from colas to condoms to airlines. Even within those sectors, the specific products, tactics and marketing has changed with the times in order to stay relevant and engaging. But the purpose of the brand remains and is undeniably a core asset of the Virgin organisation, even in these difficult times.

Purpose as a bedrock, internally and externally

Having a clear, strong, true brand purpose can give brand leaders – indeed, everyone in an enterprise – a touchstone that allows you to navigate stormy conditions better. Remember, to all intents and purposes these days, your brand is your culture and vice versa, so Purpose is as valuable internally as it is externally, for all your stakeholders.

Living our brand purpose with dignity and integrity right now may be the most important thing we can do to lay the foundations of sustained future success for our businesses.

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DanoneMark RitsonMary Portas
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