The evolution was underway before coronavirus evaporated the world’s remaining patience for empty corporate purpose, argues R/GA's Matt Resnick.

As the human, social and economic impact of the coronavirus continue to be revealed, many brands are facing unforeseen, difficult choices about the future of their business. With no precedent to guide the complex decisions ahead, companies are also facing harsh criticism from news outlets and people for any single wrong step. Why, as Mark Cuban recently commented, will the decisions a company makes during this pandemic “define their brand for decades?”

Welcome to the global test of the “purpose-driven brand” era.

How The Test Began

By 2018, most large businesses had repositioned their priorities to a new reality—that two-thirds or more of people globally were making purchase decisions based on things like transparencysustainability or the company’s impact on society. Uber evolved their mission from “Make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone" to "We ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion." Even Patagonia clarified their mission to a singular focus—“We’re in business to save our home planet”—from “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Before the pandemic, companies were shown what happens when their purpose is paper-thin. For WeWork, with its mission to “create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living,” the publicity around layoffs and a concurrent Run DMC concert substantially contributed to its downfall. The Wing, whose mission is “the professional, civic, social, and economic advancement of women through community,” was recently outed by the NY Times for not taking care of their own employees. People are smart. They’re paying attention. With COVID-19 forcing billions of people to stay home and be glued to the internet, any brand caught putting profit before purpose faces a backlash from customers with potential long-term consequences, as Edelman’s latest survey confirms.

Where purpose-led leads

While most CEOs have an elevator pitch on the global impact they’re shepherding, the reality is that their businesses weren’t established to save the world. Leaders have only recently been forced to aim at a higher purpose, hone their mission and values, fund CSR initiatives, and commit to long-term lofty goals (ex: BP going carbon-neutral by 2050).

Without an openness for shifts at the tectonic level, redefining one’s purpose based on the same business model has a ceiling. While committing to a purpose is an important step, for an increasingly critical populace with consistently decreasing switching costs a purpose without substance will just be perceived as business as usual.

The Rise of Purpose-Fed Brands

As big business tries to adapt, a new generation of entrepreneurs are cementing a purpose first and then building a business to support it. Companies like Impossible Meats, United By Blue, AeroFarms, Rubicon Global and Codecademy, designed and built to help the world in ways that happen to break industries. They are purpose-fed brands, fueled by their mission, and should never have to balance purpose and profit because the better they achieve the former, the more they’ll fulfill the latter.

So how can a purpose-led brand, or even a brand that hasn’t gotten past “we exist to make the best possible cubicle organizer,” become a purpose-fed brand? Here are a few ways to get started:

1. Review your origin story and see if it sticks

Founders can usually point back to the burning bushes, dream-induced visions and unexpected steps they took to achieve success. These stories can teach profound lessons, but holding true to founding principles only works if they’re relevant to people. Don’t be afraid to steal what’s still compelling from your own origin story and leave the rest.

2. Don’t solve everything

Today’s corporations can have such complicated supply chains that they simultaneously impact an enormous list of global social concerns. You might think the response is to create a matrix of CSR initiatives, detail the output on your website and show the world you’re a model corporate citizen. For the few who do find your CSR page, it often ends up being difficult to discern what you actually care about, or even contemplate the scale. Instead of a million small initiatives, figure out one way to turn what your company does best into something great for the world.

3. Be honest, be humble

When you make a positive impact, show and then tell. Many companies do amazing things but don’t dedicate the resources or storytellers to share. On the flip side, while a scandal can impact a business’s bottom line, a company that leads with transparency is more likely to get a second chance and even attract new customers who want that kind of behavior from the brands they choose.

For those lucky enough to have their jobs and their health during this crisis, some are taking the opportunity to renew relationships and reexamine priorities. The same should be true for businesses. This is a moment to invest in a leap ahead, reconsider priorities, get back to where it all began, or discard presumptions made during simpler times. This is not a time for reaction or inaction. If you’re looking for a chance to revisit your purpose, the time is now. Find one that feeds everything your company does and helps as many people as possible, and you will come out of this crisis as a brand ready for a new era.