What do you do when you’re running your business and the sky is falling and red ink blossoms across so many income statements? As Covid-19 strides across the globe, it’s easy for brands to slide into panic: frozen in place, or chasing frantic measures of self-preservation.
But what does the market want in such extraordinary times? The answer isn’t hard to find: Employees, clients, and consumers alike are looking to leaders for … leadership: inspiration and courage to guide them through the storm. And it’s a tall order; an OLV with heartfelt thanks and paeans to unity may be a start, but much more is needed.
At StrawberryFrog, we believe that the most effective leadership comes through activating purpose with “movement think”: By connecting companies with important currents in the broader culture, CEOs and CMOs can ignite a “movement,” especially in times of crisis, to mobilize employees and consumers.
So, while this is far from the best of times, it is worth asking what this time is actually best for. When business-as-usual has sputtered to a halt, it just may be the perfect time to ask: What could business-better look like? What might business-with-purpose accomplish? One thing is clearer than ever: This new reality will favor those with purpose. Steering a brand from panic to purpose won’t be easy, but it can provide valuable reassurance for its people, inspiration for its customers, and forward momentum for its business. Below, a series of steps for guidance along this path.
Step One: A true pause
For sectors in overdrive during this crisis (e.g., health care, connectivity, or bath tissue), a pause of any kind is out of the question. But for the rest of us, this moment provides a rare chance to reflect on why we’re in business to start with. New priorities, urgent and stark, surround us. If our business survives, will it thrive again? Will our brand still resonate with our audience? And how will we take care of our people in the meantime?
As pressing as these concerns are, there’s a key opportunity for brand leadership hiding in their midst. This extended pause can create space to ask a different question, if we allow it to surface. If you have a mission statement or brand purpose, maybe one that has languished, unheeded, in strategy decks during busy seasons prior, now is the time to dust itoff and ask, how could your brand act on this purpose with new relevance in these changed times?
Step Two: Conquer purpose inertia
A quick look at the literature shows that the jury is in with regard to the importance of purpose for businesses and brands. Indeed, Larry Fink of BlackRock has been driving this point home with his firm’s clients for years now. And, in a decisive answer to skeptics, purpose has been strongly correlated with profit. And yet our research tells us that most brands aren’t delivering clearly on this front. Just 27 percent of U.S. consumers can name a purpose-driven brand, according to the new Purpose Power Index, the first empirical study of purpose brands. What gives? There are no doubt several contributing factors, but the largest may be, simply put, business-as-usual. Meaning: Sheer inertia makes it hard to activate purpose where it hasn’t been active before.
One leader who genuinely understands this is Truist, one of the largest financial groups in the nation, a merger uniting SunTrust and BB&T. We are hard at work with our partners to ensure that purpose plays a guiding role in the new brand’s debut. That this Truist brand debut is unfolding in the midst of a global pandemic was in no one’s playbook, but these urgent circumstances have put the test to Truist’s purpose to inspire and build better lives and communities. It has led them to spotlight Truist Cares during the brand’s launch in the middle of the crisis. Here is an example.
And here lies the opportunity embedded in this crisis: With widespread disruption, purpose can find an opening. Urgent imperatives to keep communities safe, healthy, and productive now demand going beyond the call of duty, on many fronts. Surely some element of this imperative isn’t far from your purpose? There may never be a better time to activate in this way: For once, brands can boldly let purpose drive business decisions.
Step Three: Steer purpose into the future
In different times, the elevation of purpose might be seen as a return: a return to fundamentals or origin stories. But this moment calls for a forward-looking approach. For many brands, purpose may spring from their roots, but it should now light the way forward in this changed landscape.
Another brand that understands this well is Northwell Health, New York’s largest health care provider that works with StrawberryFrog. Ramon Soto, the CMO of Northwell, employs the brand to partner with patients rather than simply treat them, and to reframe health and wellness as community projects versus individual quests. While this purpose was conceived in quieter, more predictable times, it has been activated as a powerful movement galvanizing Northwell’s role in the pandemic. While providing lifesaving care in the eye of the Covid storm, Northwell has also stepped up to partner with New York State to draft a playbook for unifying disparate health care provider brands for quick deployment of resources and best practices whenever the next pandemic should grace our shores. Hospital execs may not be accustomed to collaborating with rivals in this way, but the collective nature of health care has never been more urgent than it is today, and Northwell has been able to lead with purpose and a steely resolve when it counts. Ask yourself: Where does your purpose lead in this needs-driven moment, and beyond?
Step Four: Find the right register for your purpose reset
To activate successfully, it’s worth considering where the best fit lies:
A: Reframing capabilities is a bold and direct approach. GM could not galvanize its internal team to beat Tesla, but it has outdone most other firms with speed to market for ventilators. Absolut, Jameson, andWoody Creek are now making hand sanitizer by the gallon. Apple is designing and producing face shields. Clothing retailers from Hanes to Prada are redirecting production lines to make protective gear like gowns and face masks. Our personal favorite capabilities reset: Fanatics, a Pennsylvania company that manufactures Nike uniforms for Major League Baseball, is turning that same fabric into surgical masks that sport the distinctive pinstripes of the Yankees and the Phillies, delivering gear with a hidden superpower to health care teams under duress.
If your brand makes something, could it make something related but crisis-worthy? If it provides services, could those be nimbly reframed to serve crisis needs? The goal is to contribute in a meaningful way in the near term, but the unanticipated benefit might be that once you open the aperture on what your brand can do, it may never return to its original size.
B: Reframing operations is an immediate mandate for many businesses whose
staff now have to accomplish remotely what they’d previously done in person. Perhaps no sector has experienced this more dramatically than education, where millions of students and teachers around the world were asked to shift from classrooms on Friday
to online learning by Monday.
Isn’t this just a temporary fix for extraordinary circumstances, rather than a true reframing, you may wonder? And for some schools, that may well be the case. But this drastic interruption of business-as-usual has led others to consider the relative merits of
synchronous versus asynchronous learning; of one-on-one meetings versus full-class exercises; of improved access to digital classrooms for disabled instructors and students; of collaborations that flourish online versus those that require live interactions; of flexible teaching formats for professors balancing family life, scholarship, and teaching.
If your brand has undergone operational disruptions, it’s worth asking if any of these adaptations enables a better expression of your purpose. Might some of them even be expanded to further develop such unforeseen benefits?
C: Reframing relationships is a powerful area to consider, as it touches those closest to your brand: employees, partners, and customers. Tech billionaire and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has called on fellow CEOs to take a 90-day “no layoffs” pledge to sustain employees through this crisis. For those joining him in this pledge, treating employees as essential when the going gets tough is likely to transform the relationship those companies have with their staff for years to come.
On the partners front, Wendy’s has committed to redeploy $40 million in advertising (originally intended to launch new breakfast items) to support franchisees instead — extending payment terms for brand royalties, deferring base rent payments, and allowing franchisees an additional year in which to complete required store renovations.
And for customers, opportunities abound for reframing these relationships. One telling case study is the many news and media companies that have pledged to provide their coverage of the pandemic free to the public. It’s not hard to imagine how business-as-usual paywall policies gave way to discussions about activating purpose in this extraordinary moment. Who knows how many new readers will develop a connection to those brands that outlasts this disruption?
In conclusion: Turning panic into purpose may be the most important brand leadership opportunity today, and will likely deliver benefits well into the future. Whenever the dust clears on our current woes, the best scenario for brands would be to rejoin a world that has paused to reground itself, and activated its purpose to press on to bolder and richer agendas. Here’s to courage and creativity for the journey.