The Brand Identity Crisis: Making Business Purpose Fit For Purpose

The Brand Identity Crisis: Making Business Purpose Fit For Purpose

Things will never be the same again.  We are changed and the world is changing.  The question for all of us collectively is how to ensure change equals progress and progress includes everyone.  Given how integrated into our lives brands have become, we fully expect they will step in to play their part.  So how are they doing and what should they do next?

The case for developing a well defined purpose has been well made and documented.  We buy ideas, not just things.  We buy with our emotions, not just hard cash (or one tap these days).  Brands say something about who we are and what we value.  What we value changed this year.

In a crisis it’s not just why you exist and what you believe that’s important.  It’s how you show up and deliver.  Many brands have found purpose to be a source of great strength recently and a way to focus, many others have not. While it’s easy to aspire to make the world a better place, the reality of doing so requires so much more than a well crafted set of words - it requires clarity of purpose combined with action. 

The last six months have yanked away the comfortable duvet of 2019, exposing us to a world where a virus can take lives at a heartbreaking pace, while revealing how pervasive systemic racism does too, and more so.

In a world rife with disinformation, in which following health advice like wearing a face covering is perceived as a political act by many, brands have a unique role to play in educating and enabling the public. The Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that 78% of people expect business to act to protect employees and the local community from Covid-19, and some brands have really acted here. Many fashion retailers like Burberry recommissioned factories to help create PPE; breweries like BrewDog created hand sanitisers. O2 joined the Conscious Advertising Network to fight fake news on 5G and created content to support education around conspiracy theories. While self-serving to an extent, given that 5G masts were being torn down by angry members of the public, it also lends credibility to O2’s sudden commitment to tackling fake news: it’s a purpose-driven action that fits into the brand’s identity and areas of credibility. 

Meanwhile, ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s came out full tilt in support of Black Lives Matter with specific and well informed demands for change, pursuing a brand heritage of vocal activism that felt authentic to its spirit and its history. It worked on easy to understand infographics to illustrate the injustices of racism and outlining the benefits of change, educating its audience while remaining authentic. L’Oreal, facing huge backlash for posting in support of Black Lives Matter years after ending its relationship with trans activist Munroe Bergdorf for speaking out on racism, showed much needed humility in apologising and then welcoming Bergdorf into an advisory board role to better understand how it can improve. This is a key education point for many who have made mistakes in the past: the power of apology and willingness to listen and improve. 

Pre Covid-19 80% of consumers agreed that business should play a role in addressing societal issues: wanting a company to take actions which increase profits, improve social conditions, and make the world a better place.  The Deloitte Insights 2020 Global Marketing Trends Report more recently found that purpose-driven companies experienced 40% higher workforce retention compared to their competitors.  Retention isn’t a concern for many companies right now, but it will be in the future and how they behave now will make a difference.

Since the crisis began a more compassionate trend has started to emerge; as neighbours provided for each other and for those unable to leave their houses. A collective sense of community began to shine, as has the importance of the individual’s role in the community ecosystem. 

The same can be said for brands, with many forced not just to confront how they will survive, but what they are surviving in the service of.  The health crisis has accelerated our digital transformation, social injustice is fuelling a more purpose-led one.  

Many leaders that I talk to are asking themselves far reaching questions relating to who they are, what they represent, what kind of business they wish to lead and what kind of society they want to build.  

Brands today will need to move well beyond traditional CSR initiatives and posting performative black squares on social media if they wish to thrive.  Short term survival aside, if the will of leadership is there so is the imperative, businesses and their brands will follow.

Here are four things every business and brand leader should be doing right now:

1. Define the business and brand you wish to be, not just what you need to do today

2. Share your big picture goals as well as your tactical 2020 plan with your people

3. Focus on what’s needed to build trust and community with your customers

4. Ground your purpose in everyday actions that make it real, not simply words

Committing fully to a purpose can be challenging, more so in these turbulent economic times.  But in a world in which our choices matter so vividly and in which we see social injustices, climate change, disinformation and more - it’s an imperative. There will never be a better moment to step bravely into the future and to do so with a renewed sense of purpose to guide your actions.