Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, many businesses and brands are asking: How should I help? How can I act while staying true to my own purpose? Can I play a role if my brand purpose has yet to be defined or activated? How can I act and communicate in ways that add value without being opportunistic?

We’ve always believed that a sharp, well-defined purpose helps brands earn their way into people’s lives and into culture. A clear sense of purpose enables brands to act with integrity, honesty, generosity and decisiveness—the defining values of this moment. Recently, Richard Edelman, Edelman’s CEO, discussed a brand’s role in this crisis, stating that people not only want to hear from brands, but also “...they’re expecting brands to be an important part of the solution.”

In the context of Covid-19 and all the uncertainty that comes with it, we see a moment of truth for brands—some are treating their actions (including marketing) as a public service while others have been slower to act. Whether your brand is currently purpose-led or not, this is the time to think about how to make a meaningful contribution that creates value and positive impact.

The golden rule of purpose is: What you do matters more than what you say. This is more important now than ever before.

Consider this framework and set of best practices as you navigate how to think and act with purpose in this challenging and pivotal moment.

Today, we are in emergency-response mode. This is an important moment to act, but the pandemic’s impact will be long-term. We recommend a brief exercise to evaluate the potential role your company or brand(s) can play across three phases: Immediate Actions, Near-term Actions and Long-term: Living Purpose in the New Normal.

Not all companies, brands or products will have a role in each phase. The goal is to make a tangible, positive impact.

Immediate Actions: Now

If you have a role to play now, you should act. Emergency response actions often include: internal policy changes (e.g., expanded PTO), new or increased access to goods and services (e.g., free Wi-Fi or online educational content), and philanthropy (e.g., donated funds or in-kind products to those in need).

For example, U.S. automakers are offering delayed payment programs and loan deferrals for auto-loan holders who have lost their jobs; grocers in the U.S., UK and Australia are offering special shopping hours for seniors and the vulnerable; internet providers are lifting data caps and offering subsidized internet access; educational platforms are making online content available for free; and several retailers are paying workers despite closing stores.

For comprehensive lists of brands and their actions, please visit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Coronavirus Corporate Aid Tracker or the Boston Center for Corporate Citizenship’s Tracker.

Questions to consider when determining immediate needs:

  1. Can your business fill a direct need during this time?
  2. Can you partner with other companies or brands to take collective action?
  3. What can you do to maintain employment for your people, suppliers and those in your value chain?
  4. How else can you help the people you serve?
  5. How can you support communities of operation?
  6. How can you ensure fulfillment of key goods/services? Can you expand capacity to reach those in need?

Near-term Actions: Now–6 months following

Depending on your brand and your purpose, there may be an opportunity to act in the short term to address the broader impacts and effects of Covid-19. This could include consumer calls-to-action, brand advocacy, new or adapted programming and/or NGO partnerships.

Questions to consider when determining near-term actions:

  1. What is your brand’s permission, space and role, in light of Covid-19?
    • In the short term, focus on defining where you have a right to play and add value. 
    • What role are you uniquely suited to play: enable, educate, inspire, mobilize support and/or lead change?
  2. What can you do?
    • How can you fill a gap and add value to people, communities, society? 
    • Should you create a new action, or can you adapt an existing planned initiative to be more responsive to current needs and realities?
    • What are those that understand the issues (experts and partners) saying they need from you?
  3. Then, what will you say?
    • Engage the right voices to ensure your action is authentic and will land with impact.
    • Follow branding and communications best practices and provide information on the action you are taking.

Long term—Living Purpose in the "New Normal": 6+ months–long-term

Looking to the long term, much is uncertain. One thing we do know: the world will look different. The pandemic will impact macrosystems and economies alongside deeply personal issues, like how we connect with each other, how we care for each other, and how we view and take part in community. It will exacerbate existing inequalities; it will be more difficult for some to rebound than others.

The time to start thinking about these changes is now, so you are prepared for the changes that will impact both your business and your purpose. Build and strengthen relationships with experts who can provide perspective on these changes. Listen to your stakeholders, from employees to communities to end-users, to understand their evolving needs.

With this insight, ask: How is the role you play in people’s lives evolving? What can you offer people to be more relevant and add more meaning? Where do you now have the license to act more boldly?

Building Purpose During a Crisis: Overarching Principles

  1. Do the greatest good. Your purpose should always be your “North Star,” but be prepared to think and act differently to meet urgent and changing needs.
  2. Find ways to add unique value. Understand the broader impacts of the crisis on people’s lives. Look for gaps you can fill that others can’t.
  3. Look to experts for existing solutions. It’s important to act quickly, but it’s essential to be credible. Experts and partners can help you identify validated, meaningful solutions at speed.
  4. Lean in on partnerships. Typically, purpose-driven actions emphasize brand-owned, equity-building activity. In moments of critical need, collaboration is key.
  5. Be your own devil’s advocate. Opportunistic actions are not an option. Gut check ideas with your most cynical critic in mind—are we really adding value?

Jackie Murphy is Executive Vice President, Brand and Joanna Tatchell is head of Brand Strategy.

Edelman is supporting businesses and organizations looking to better understand the Covid-19 pandemic and its public health implications; manage communications with employees and customers; and receive guidance on strategies and policies for effective preparedness and response efforts.

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