War creates necessity. Necessity drives change. While we have been at war in the US for the better part of the last century, having just pulled out of Afghanistan, the invasion of Ukraine has created the necessity for action in ways past wars haven’t. It’s also creating a need for brands, and particularly the role of Purpose within brands, businesses and marketing, to evolve.
I have long argued that Purpose as a whole is the latest iteration of brands evolving over time, along with changing media and social culture, to become more and more like the people who create and manage them. Not ideologically, but as humans who interact and engage holistically in the world, and who have a conscience.
That’s why this moment is an inflection point for purpose, and the mass pullout of major global businesses from Russia is just the beginning. I see five changes coming out of it.
- Purpose will be more precise
The war in Ukraine, especially over time, will force brands to declare with a lot more specificity what they are for and against. Think about it. Are brands for Ukraine, or against Russia, as nations? Are they against Putin as an individual? Are they for peace and against war? Are they for refugees? Are they anti-hunger? Or are they just reacting to what everyone else is doing? The answers to each of these questions would drive dramatically different strategic behavior in the immediate crisis, and also around the world.
Each of them also would have different outcomes that can be accepted. For example, if Russia withdraws, but Putin remains in power, is it ok to re-enter Russia? Can you forgive the country’s leaders for what has happened? For a long time, many brands have been content with somewhat general, positive statements of purpose which allows them a lot of freedom for interpretation. This conflict is going to force some hard choices and push brands to be clearer and more specific going forward, because everything sets a precedent.
- Precedent will take precedence
Brands and businesses have to know that everything they do sets a precedent that they will be held to with greater intensity each passing day – not just in Ukraine, but as Purpose evolves overall. The tools that consumers have to hold brands accountable with are increasingly powerful, and as brands lead with purpose more frequently, they will have to back it with increasingly authentic action. For many brands, what they’ve done is initiate a boycott of Russia. Not a bad step, especially as sanctions were an obvious consequence and brands were going to be put in this spot anyway. Good for the ones who got ahead of it.
However, it’s easy to boycott Russia, because it crossed the line and invaded a country. It’s also a small market and the country’s Ukrainian victims are white. China has been committing genocide against the Uyghurs for years, including mass imprisonment, torture, sterilization, and sexual abuse, among other crimes against humanity. I don’t see any brands taking a stand in China at all. Probably because the victims aren’t white, China is a huge market and the Uyghurs don’t have a voice like the Ukrainians do. This kind of cognitive dissonance isn’t going to hold much longer. Especially as China is being asked to choose sides.
- Learning the long game
This conflict is likely to grind on for a long time, and it's going to get worse and more confusing before it gets better or simpler. That’s important to consider. Most crises and causes are a one-act play in the minds of the American public and consumer. This one is likely to be different. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went on for a long time, they didn’t ever have the intense drama of escalation to keep them in the media spotlight. The escalation here will likely be drip by drip, nation by nation, if it happens. That will keep this conflict in the spotlight for a long time. It will force brands to consider the future more in what they do now, and it will force the need for contingency planning and “war-gaming” for the brand.
The other area the long game will shed light on is who the real audience is. Most people think Purpose is about consumers. That’s true, but the reality is that Purpose impacts the employees of a brand at least as much. While consumers are likely to forget who does what over time, if you do this right, employees will tell stories to their kids about how you helped them get involved and how proud they are of that involvement.
- Policy comes to the planning team
To be effective in this space, and to avoid making decisions that can undermine what you’re trying to do in the first place, both agencies and brands are going to have to develop
non-traditional expertise in public and foreign policy. In practice, I believe this is a new role or roles with a title of “Policy Strategist” or something similar. These folks will have backgrounds in social services, environmental policy, foreign policy, and political economics; and they will work with planning and creative teams throughout the process to ensure cause and purpose campaigns hit their mark. Over time, these folks will create a new value proposition within agencies and work to further increase our strategic role as client advisors.
- Recognizing the value of specialization
Ultimately, I think the crisis will help brands and agencies realize that purpose is an expertise in the business. Thinking a few people with some pro-bono experience can turn into a flourishing purpose team will no longer be considered good thinking. There was a moment in the early 2000s when brands realized there was tremendous incremental value in hiring true digital agencies and talent, as compared to having their general agencies trying to run their digital operations. I believe the conflict in Ukraine will create that same realization in marketing departments, holding companies and agency networks around the world. And that will lead to a wave of M&A in the purpose-driven sector, like the M&A craze in digital back then.
That said, the only thing certain about life during wartime is that life after it will never be the same.