Covid-19 is bringing into stark relief the differences between companies that have evolved their purpose from an outdated definition of corporate social responsibility and philanthropy to a broader point of view encompassing all stakeholders and grounded in the reason why a business exists. During this pandemic, altering your brand’s logo to help spread awareness will bring attention, but your business realities and your brand’s purpose will be measured across the totality of your communications, actions, policies and behaviors. In short, you’ll be expected to answer the question:
“When the world faced Covid-19, what did you do to help?”
As healthcare and economic systems began to buckle in Covid-19 hotspots, notable companies have stepped up, aiming to make a societal difference at a time when society needs them most. Trader Joe’s agreed to pay employees “hazard pay,” quickly responding to a petition from employees citing potentially dangerous working conditions. Online learning platform *Coursera also moved rapidly, waiving fees until August for universities in need of digital course substitution and saw online classes that disseminated accurate public health messages about Covid-19 become their most sought-after free courses.
As part of their stated purpose, Dyson intends “to inspire a new generation of engineers.” When tapped by the government of the United Kingdom, Dyson managed to design, from the ground up, a new kind of ventilator made specifically for Covid-19 patients, dubbed the “CoVent.” By giving its engineers an opportunity to utilize their talents and the capabilities of their core business, Dyson inspired its current (and future) workforce to serve one of the greatest challenges of their generation.
In this moment of truth for humanity, brands will be held to incredibly high standards despite complex business realities. The New York Times recently posted a powerful video of a McDonald’s employee making an emotional case that she has to go to work whether she’s sick or well, citing that 95 percent of McDonald’s restaurants are franchise-owned and that the corporate policy of paid sick time does not apply to her. We’re moving toward a moment in culture where the way an employer treats their employees resonates more than a clever communication.
In reaction to Covid-19, some brands are starting to approach their marketing initiatives as a public service, while others are pausing marketing campaigns altogether and evaluating shifting business priorities. We’re still at the early stages of all of this, but here are a few guidelines for brands and organizations striving to meet the high standards of their values and purpose in the context of a pandemic:
Your organization has likely been caught off guard and you are most likely dealing with crisis and response right now, so even the idea of living up to your higher purpose as a business, brand and organization will seem daunting and unachievable. Don’t stay in this space permanently though—at some point your organization will need to regroup and bring together the teams that bring its purpose to life (CSR, HR, employees, marketing) and you’ll want to start thinking longer term again.
What were the priority societal issues that were most important to you in the pre-pandemic world? Are they still the same? A purpose should be the north star of an organization and is unwavering in many ways, yet it’s not immune to changes in context, attitudes or shifts in society. Many brands threw their purpose efforts into high gear in the past five or so years in response to cultural and societal shifts, many largely driven by millennials and Gen-Z. We have yet to see how society adapts to post pandemic realities but, in some ways, purpose should adapt along with culture.
Pandemic implications can present opportunities to reset and re-align with what you think your purpose is, how you are living up to it, what you are doing right vs. what you could do better and how can make an impact moving forward. It seems counterintuitive to be thinking this way at this point, but the clarity that comes with crisis also presents unique opportunities for re-evaluation and “soul searching.” During times of uncertainty, people look for the humanity in corporations and seek out brands they can trust. Our Edelman Trust Barometer surveys about coronavirus show that earning trust remains a key metric for success during this time—something we’ve always felt goes hand in hand with purpose.
Purpose in the context of today’s crisis is likely to emerge as an idea that’s been profoundly pressure tested, re-emerging with the battle scars to show for it. With an uncertain business environment ahead of us, the understandable temptation to focus on business survival may be more visceral than ever. But during this time, the world is watching. It’s a world of employees, consumers, customers, media and investors. Purpose will still have its place once we move into the post pandemic world, but it’s likely to require more “proof of purpose” (the action a brand takes) both today and tomorrow if a brand truly wants to build lasting trust.
David Armano is global strategy director, key accounts, Brand.
* Edelman client
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.
Please complete the below form to speak to Edelman's Covid-19 advisory team: