The coronavirus pandemic has brought the global economy to its knees in a matter of weeks. With stock markets tanking, revenues falling off a cliff, and sheer terror at the prospect of what’s around the corner, it’s easy for brands to slide into panic mode: frozen with inaction, or pursuing frantic measures of self-preservation.
At such times of crisis and adversity, employees, clients, and customers are looking to leaders for reassurance, inspiration, and courage to guide them through the storm. And it’s a tall order – an email with heartfelt thanks and wishes for good health is a start, but much more is needed.
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 is impossible, it’s the perfect time to ask: What might business possible, business next, business better look like? What might business with purpose accomplish? The challenge for leaders now is to steer colleagues and associates from business panic to brand purpose. Indeed, (re)activating your purpose can provide stability to your people and forward momentum for your business. Here’s what that might look like.
Step 1: A meaningful pause
For many of us now forced to stay put, this moment provides a rare chance to reflect on why we’re in business to begin with. The shuttering of travel, sports, events, restaurants, gyms, theaters, and — most dislocating of all — the workplace can be traumatic, for staff and leaders alike. If our business survives, will it thrive again? And how will we take care of our people in the meantime?
Urgent as these concerns are, they may obscure a different kind of opportunity for leadership. If you have a mission statement or brand purpose, perhaps one that was mostly sidelined during busy seasons prior, now is the time to dust it off and ask, how could your brand act on this purpose with renewed relevance in these changed times?
Step 2: Overcome purpose inertia
In recent years, a striking consensus has emerged about the importance of purpose for businesses and brands, and its strong correlation with profit. Larry Fink of BlackRock has made this argument for years with his firm’s clients, and 2019 was the year that the Business Roundtable released a declaration signed by181 CEOs putting “purpose over profits.”
And yet, our research suggests that most brands aren’t delivering clearly on this front. Just 27% of consumers can name a purpose-driven brand, according to the new Purpose Power Index. What gives? There are likely several contributing factors, but the largest may be that the sheer inertia of business as usual makes it hard to activate purpose where it hasn’t been active before.
Our work with Mahindra, a multinational holding company based in Mumbai, focused on overcoming this inertia by creating and clarifying a brand purpose: to unlock ingenuity within their ranks and beyond — a movement they called “Rise.” Mahindra’s inertia took the form of a tendency toward caution and conformity, and we knew that activating their purpose would require both internal and external initiatives. Through role-play and executive coaching sessions, we were able to anchor the new Rise culture among the top 200 executives across their core business units including automotive, technology, banking and agriculture. We worked with the CHRO to establish Rise culture qualities as the yardstick for annual performance evaluation, and as key criteria for new hires into the company. Externally, the firm launched the Rise Prize, rewarding would-be innovators with $1 million on the premise that the next big idea to change the world could come from India.
This points to an opportunity hidden within the current crisis: with widespread business disruption, brand purpose can find an opening. All of the urgent imperatives to keep communities safe, healthy, and employed will demand extraordinary measures on many fronts. Surely some elements of these imperatives will align your own brand purpose? There may never be a better time to activate in this way. For once, leaders can boldly let brand purpose drive business decisions.
Step 3: Bring purpose into the future
In different times, the elevation of purpose might be framed as a return: a return to fundamentals, to origin stories, to one’s roots. Roots are always important, but brand purpose today should light the way forward in this changed landscape. In March, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote a letter to employees, putting it this way: “It is in times of great disruption and uncertainty that our ability to stay grounded in our sense of purpose and remain true to our identity is of the utmost importance.”
Indeed, he writes of Microsoft’s heritage in software as enabling a new “first responder” mindset across the company, as they adapt their wares for public and private sector initiatives to track the virus and address the risks it poses. Our work with LifeBridge Health, a large hospital system in Baltimore, demonstrates a similar principle: their brand purpose is to care bravely, which means going above and beyond the standard of care, whether by procuring a stove for a diabetic patient so she can cook healthy meals at home, or by reducing hospital readmissions to deliver on a commitment to effective treatment. This purpose has never been more urgent than it is now, in the face of an unpredictable pandemic where standards of care are evolving by the hour, and everyday health care heroes represent our best hope. Ask yourself: where does your purpose lead in this needs-driven moment?
Step 4: How and where to act
Your purpose-driven reset must go beyond words and messaging to action. Three core spheres of action present themselves: Reframing capabilities, reframing operations, and reframing relationships.
Reframing capabilities is the most dramatic and direct approach. If your business makes something, could it make something related but crisis-worthy? If your business provides services, could those be quickly reframed to serve crisis needs? Alcohol brands are now making hand sanitizer by the gallon. Manufacturers as varied as Ford and Dyson are redeploying their factories to make ventilators. Clothing retailers such as Nike and The Gap are redirecting production lines to make protective gear like gowns and face-shields. Our personal favorite capabilities transformation: Fanatics, a Pennsylvania company that manufactures the Nike uniforms for Major League Baseball, is turning that same fabric into surgical masks that will sport the distinctive pinstripes of the Yankees and the Phillies, delivering gear with a hidden superpower to healthcare teams under duress.
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 business can do, it may never return to its original size.
Reframing operations is an immediate concern for many businesses whose staff have had to accomplish remotely what they had customarily done in person. Perhaps no sector has experienced this more dramatically than education, where millions of students and teachers around the world had to shift from classrooms on Friday to online classes by Monday.
This may seem like a temporary adjustment to extraordinary circumstances, rather than a true re-framing. But this dramatic interruption has led many educators to begin contemplating the relative merits of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning; of one-on-one meetings vs. full class exercises; of improved access to digital classrooms for disabled instructors and students; of flexible teaching formats for professors balancing family life, scholarship and instruction.
Operational disruptions, while stressful, provide opportunities to gauge whether your adaptations actually further your purpose, or if indeed your purpose suggests that some of them might actually be expanded to increase unforeseen benefits.
Reframing relationships is a powerful sphere to consider, as it touches those constituencies closest to your brand: your employees, your partners, your customers. Steve Odland, president of the Conference Board and former CEO of Office Depot, has argued strongly that we must prevent layoffs if we are to avoid a full-bore depression. Tech billionaire and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has called on fellow CEOs to take a 90-day “no lay-offs” pledge to help their employees through this crisis. For those joining him in this pledge, treating employees as essential partners in this crisis is likely to forever transform the relationship those companies have with their staff.
With regard to business partners, Wendy’s has opted to redeploy $40M 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 opportunities abound for reframing customer relationships. One powerful example is the many media organizations who have pledged to provide their coverage of the pandemic free to the public. It’s not hard to imagine how default 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 platforms that outlasts this disruption?
It may be weeks or months, but one day, a version of business as usual will re-emerge. By turning business panic into brand purpose now, we might rejoin a world which has paused to rediscover itself, and reframed its mission to press on to bolder and richer agendas.