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The value of being a good citizen at a time of crisis

What’s the purpose of purpose?

The value of being a good citizen at a time of crisis

Lisa Story

Chief Strategy Officer



As we have fought against COVID-19, we have expected businesses and brands to join us.  How they have done that and the impact they have had on us, on UK society, depends on what we could call the power of their purpose.  

That power of purpose can be assessed in three critical areas:

  1. The clarity of their purpose and the extent to which it avoids “generics” to focus on unique and core capabilities, products or services.
  2. The level to which it is embedded at the core to the business or brand, driving strategies that deliver value to and beyond customers, to other stakeholders and to society at large.  
  3. Finally, the level of commitment with which it has been invested in and acted upon to create value over time. To what extent is the value of purpose measured, evaluated for example? We only manage what we measure.

Some may have recently questioned the value of purpose as an idea to drive business growth, reputation, equity or brand value. But this has only happened where there has been a failure to fully embrace purpose as it should be; content masquerading as purpose; a beautifully crafted story for marketing purposes, where the telling is more important than the doing.  This is purpose without power.  You can hear the artfully selected sound track tugging on your heart strings now.  Or when purpose has been permission to engage in society’s problems as an indirect way to get attention. Marketing through society’s back door. Often marked by a complete disconnect between the core product or service and an issue which goes way beyond the inauthentic.  I won’t give examples, but these are the thermals of Twitter storms. We all know what I mean.

Some brands will get it right; some will get it wrong

At a time of crisis, businesses and brands that receive positive attention, earned coverage, conversation and advocacy are those who are have already been delivering on purpose fully and can now flex with renewed intent. They have not just worked out the “why”, neatly captured in PowerPoint or creative briefs, but have been focused on delivering the “what” for some time throughout the business.  They’ve closed the gap between the two because they believe in the importance of behaving like citizens, with the responsibility that brings.

When faced with COVID-19, they’ve been able to work out quickly how to authentically and meaningfully deliver their purpose for good, staying true to their core product and service and leveraging their scale to benefit society. We’ve seen brands such as LVMH, Dyson and Tesco receiving such positive reactions because they have shown empathy and understanding of the British people and their concerns.  And they have worked hard to meet them.  They know people are worried personally about their health, family, jobs, security and about society; the economy, businesses, the frontline workers, the NHS. Brands with powerful purpose know there is a right and wrong way to respond, and can see clearly what their role should be.


Getting it right isn’t easy

It’s not surprising that sectors such as supermarkets, healthcare, logistics have been performing well given the nature of this crisis and the needs of people, particularly employees, customers and the vulnerable. Overall, retail hasn’t been doing too badly either.  

The British public is fully appreciative of those businesses and brands who have joined them in this fight. This is important, since we know that what happens at the eye of the storm will come under scrutiny later and impacts the love, trust and value that a brand will garner longer-term.

The British public is also fully aware that there is that critical difference between talk and action. Research by WPP company PSB (in its Consumer Expectation Monitor) conducted when Brits were confined to their homes for all-but-essential outings, showed that nearly half (46 percent) of people agreed that “lots of brands say they are helping with the fight against Coronavirus, but few are taking real action”.  They were casting a cynical eye over what businesses were doing, and 61 percent believed that “some are taking advantage of the pandemic for their own benefit”.  This could be true, or it could be an unfair perception and a case for better communication.

It’s not enough to tell your customers you love the NHS. What are you doing for the NHS?  But deciding who and how to help in a situation such as this isn’t necessarily straightforward. Because any action will be a diversion from current strategy, and will require investment, change, risk. If the power of purpose is strong and there is strong internal alignment and focus already, then the process of deciding action will be easier. And we’ll all thank you for it.