Brand purpose as a concept was already coming in for some deserved criticism as a result of companies misunderstanding or misusing it, but now we’re in the grip of COVID-19 the stakes are even higher – says Mike Teasdale.

So, how should you leverage brand purpose in this new context?

Well, before you even get to thinking about brand purpose you need to ensure your brand is not coming across as tone deaf. When UK discount retailer Sports Direct said they intended to stay open despite the British Government ordering all non-essential shops to close it came across as crass. Initially, they defended their decision by saying they were providing an essential service, but they rapidly performed a U-turn following a backlash on social media.

Right now, brands should be thinking about how to use their marketing for public good. That means messaging should change to be about how they can help people through this crisis. It should reflect the things that people want to know about, like how to get basic supplies or stay sane while cooped up indoors. Now is not the time to launch a new range or model.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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Instead, brands should be thinking about how to help in a way that is reflective of their brand purpose. Pret A Manger’s initiative to support hard-pressed UK National Health Service workers by offering them hot drinks for free and implementing a 50% discount on all other products resonates because it’s a good example of rapid action that is linked to their wider purpose of good food combined with good decisions.

Similarly, the French luxury goods group LVMH will reap reputational rewards from its quick decision to start producing hand sanitiser at no charge to the French health authorities at its perfume and cosmetics factories. This act will do more good (in every sense of the word) than continuing to make Christian Dior, Guerlain or Givenchy scents. There’s something noble about using skills normally deployed in the pursuit of the art of living to temporarily assist the science of not dying.

They say that history is so yesterday, but people do remember significant acts like these, especially when they are in sync with a brand’s purpose.

That’s because, when it’s handled right, brand purpose is an incredibly powerful tool. Leveraging a clear statement of why a brand exists can unify and mobilize employees and stakeholders.

Where it goes wrong in my view is when brands misunderstand (deliberately or otherwise) the real purpose of purpose. It’s not supposed to be all about social responsibility. It’s not supposed to be superficial tokenism. It’s not supposed to be retrofitted. It’s not supposed to replace a strategy. It’s not supposed to be handled by one corporate ad and then ignored day to day by multiple actions to the contrary.

It’s supposed to be about your reason for existing and why people should care.

The primary audience of any brand purpose should be employees not consumers because purpose impacts the values and beliefs of a brand, which in turns impacts the desired behaviours of those who work for the brand.

It doesn’t have to be about saving the world just about where you sit in the world and what you contribute to it. And it doesn’t have to be something you talk publicly about. It’s there to guide your actions, not your ads.

Some argue that successful businesses need a purpose that is bigger than themselves and goes beyond providing goods or services. Unilever is often cited in this context. But what people forget about Unilever is the reason why it first went down this route was to ensure its survival by improving its performance.

This does not undervalue the good that it does; it simply puts it in context. It reminds us that having a purpose has a purpose of its own. Profit. And that’s a good thing since enlightened self-interest is the corner stone of the free market and makes other things possible.

Things like corporate generosity. Unilever has announced that they will contribute €100m to help the fight against COVID-19 through donations of soap, sanitiser, bleach and food. Their CEO Alan Jope said, “Our strong cash flow and balance sheet mean that we can, and should, give this additional support”.

This is the benefit of enlightened self-interest and examples like this will drive other businesses to look at their own assets and expertise and ask what part they can play in assisting the response to COVID-19 in a way that reflects their own brand purpose.

For more info on how brands can best navigate these uncertain times WARC has developed a dedicated content series to help marketers.

Check it out, but above all please stay safe and remember to wash those hands like you’ve been chopping ghost chilli peppers and now intend to insert eye droplets!