COVID-19 is putting "Brand Purpose" to its true test: Here's the do's and don'ts
For years now, marketing gurus have preached the power of “brand purpose” in connecting with today’s socially-conscious consumers. It’s been such a popular talking-point within modern branding, we even dedicated a whole content track to it—Beyond Brand Purpose—at our conference last year, OnBrand.
Part of the reason why brand purpose is so widely discussed is not only because of its importance in developing authentic connections with consumers, but also because it can be so tricky to get right.
Leading with purpose often requires brands to get off the fence and take a stand on some of society’s most contentious issues. If a brand’s values and actions aren’t genuinely aligned with the causes they seek to associate themselves with, the ensuing backlash from consumers can cause lasting damage to brand reputation.
Research shows 63% of modern consumers prefer to do business with brands that share their personal values and beliefs, and Nike’s Emmy award-winning "Dream Crazy" ad campaign featuring NFL star Colin Kaepernick is arguably no better proof of that.
While the campaign may have alienated a subset of Nike’s audience—with many dubbing Nike’s stance as “Anti-American”—it was seemingly a small price to pay, with the ad generating an extra 170,000 social media followers and share prices hitting record highs in the wake of its release.
Likewise, the shaving company Gillette attracted similar levels of attention (and controversy) in its attempts to promote a more positive—and less toxic—form of masculinity with its #Metoo-inspired "The Best Men Can Be" ad campaign. Yet in contrast to Nike’s example, it’s difficult to say whether the controversy created by Gillette's ad had a positive impact on its brand reputation.
While many applauded Gillette's refreshingly nuanced stance on modern masculinity, the commercial also became one of the most disliked videos on YouTube, suggesting a large subset of its core demographic felt alienated by the pivot away from a traditionally 'macho' brand identity in an effort to appeal to a younger, more "woke" generation. Such a sudden shift to a more socially-conscious brand image was inevitably going to raise eyebrows, with many questioning the integrity of Gillette’s motives.
The younger generation are much more aware that they’re being marketed to. Every brand wants that immediate idea that’s going to lift them above the noise, but the messaging and authenticity – really making a change – isn’t easily achieved in the blink of an eye. We all end up even more cynical.Mark Borkowski
PR Expert at Borkowski [The Guardian]
The examples of purpose-led branding from both Nike and Gillette serve to illustrate how much of a delicate balancing act it can be when trying to align brand values with your audience.
At best, leading with purpose can drive positive change on some of society’s most pressing issues, while attracting a loyal fanbase that’ll last a lifetime.
At worst, brand purpose can be misappropriated as a cheap marketing ploy that exploits the same issues for the sake of commercial gain and opportunistic PR points. Sadly, enough brands have been guilty of this that there’s even a term for it: "purpose-washing".
The coronavirus crisis is forcing brands to back up their purposeful words with action—and the world is watching
The globally-transformative shift to "business-as-unusual" brought about by the coronavirus crisis has created a deluge of value-led brand messaging like never before.
From fast-food chains to dating apps, every brand under the sun is scrambling to communicate something—anything—to consumers about their brand’s stance during the pandemic. So much so, that it didn’t take long for these brand "reassurances" to be a running joke among many of its recipients.
No doubt the intentions were good for these brands. This pandemic is uncharted territory for all of us, and inevitably marketing teams want to address the elephant in the room, i.e. one of the most globally-disruptive phenomenons of our generation that no one can ignore. If they were to avoid the C-word and carry on with usual marketing activities, that would be equally jarring.
But many of these brands are failing to read the room and empathize with the audience they’re so desperately trying to reassure. If you just lost your job as a result of the pandemic, reassurances that “we’re in this together” from a fashion e-tailer you shopped with two years ago would provide little comfort.
Consumers don’t need empty words, however good the intentions. Brands now have the opportunity to practice what they’ve always preached about their brand’s purpose, and back up words with action.
Pivoting to Purpose: How to do it right?
Before pivoting their brand strategies in the wake of COVID-19, businesses must ask themselves: what are our core brand values? What can we provide that others can’t, however great or small? And fundamentally, how can we translate our values into positive action for the sake of the common good?
This is an instructive moment for brands as they consider their go-forward posture on marketing, messaging, and customer engagement ... The takeaway for brands is to be helpful, relevant, informative, constructively distracting, or authentically compassionate.Ryan Ku
Head of Brand Strategy & Innovation at Eleven [Fast Company]
Inevitably, not every brand’s business model will naturally align in directly supporting the COVID-19 response, and that’s alright. There are still opportunities to drive positive change and use a brand’s platform and reach to support those that are in fact on the frontlines—whether that’s clients, partners, or consumers.
Here at Bynder, we’re in the SaaS business—not exactly an industry critical to the COVID-19 fightback—but we’re helping in ways that make sense for us.
The abrupt shift to remote working as a consequence of the pandemic is an area where our business model can help support, so we’re providing clients with remote-friendly add-ons to their existing solution for free to help them transition to a more remote way of working. After all, we have 4000+ brands across a multitude of industries using our software solution—and many of those are on the frontlines, needing all the help they can get.
Take two of our clients—Northwell Health Foundation and Spotify—who each have their own relief funds running to support those hardest hit within their respective industries. To support their efforts and help spread the word, we’ve called on our employees to make personal donations, and as a business, we’ll match every one of them.
Our efforts may not set the PR industry alight and make us headline news, but we’re supporting the COVID-19 fightback—however indirectly—in a way that aligns most appropriately to our business, while showing solidarity with our stakeholders.
Not every brand needs to play the hero; let the health workers take care of that. Instead, businesses should think pragmatically about how their brand values and purpose can authentically support the COVID-19 fightback, no matter how big or small the deed.
Because when all is said and done and “business-as-usual” returns, those brands who set aside opportunistic business gains and PR point-scoring, and instead focused their efforts on the common good, will be remembered—and rewarded—by the very same people who built their brand in the first place.
If you’d like to make a personal donation to the Corona relief funds mentioned this article, you can find out more here: Northwell Health Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund and Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief Project.