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How Do You Enact Purpose in a Crisis?

February 10, 2021


How Do You Enact Purpose in a Crisis?

We have talked a lot about brand purpose recently—maybe more so than ever before, because of the pandemic. When COVID-19 upended all our best laid plans (and continues to upend them), a lot of us found ourselves adrift. Not just us—but our consumers were also feeling this. What are we actually doing here? What matters?

These are tough questions to ask as an individual—and they’re even tougher to ask as a brand. An individual Marketer might be able to answer the question with ease. But a brand—well, we have to dig deeper for that.

So that brought a lot of us to the idea of purpose. We needed to do a bit of soul-searching in the early days of the pandemic, to figure out why we’re here. It’s easy to get distracted by the idea that our business’s whole purpose is to make money. But often, if we look deeper, we’ll find that there’s another reason we’re here. A reason or benefit that our customers are seeking from us.

That’s purpose. In the last year, many of us latched on to a so-called purpose, especially as our consumers looked to us for guidance. We needed to step up and deliver leadership in a world turned on its head.

Now, some of us are asking if our pivot to purpose actually worked—if it can actually drive sales. Our numbers may still not be there….and the purpose chosen, perhaps vs. revealed….may be at risk or not align with the authentic purpose believe to be true by a brands most valuable customers. 

Understanding the authentic reason for being, the higher purpose of a business works! But that means we have to do it right—and a lot of us, especially in the middle of this crisis, aren’t doing that.

1.   The Gap Between Experience and Expectation

One report said 40 percent of our customers see a gap between what we promise and what they’re actually getting. If we think we’re enacting purpose, that’s a big, big problem. Why?

It is a house of cards waiting to collapse! It means we’re talking the talk, but we’re not walking the walk. We’re saying stuff—“we’re all in this together”—but we’re not actuallyenacting that. That messaging—we’re all in this together—has taken a battering recently. A prime example of this is all the government officials who keep telling their constituents to stay home and stay safe, then jet off on vacation.

That doesn’t seem like we’re all in it together.

Our brands’ missteps may not be that obvious, but it’s the kind of thing we have to be on the lookout for. What are we saying, and what are we doing to actually back that up?

2.   You Can’t Just “Bolt Purpose On”

I like this quote from Tom Roach about the power of purposefulness for our brands:

“… it’s actually best used as a business tool by companies that are genuinely committed to conscious capitalism, rather than as a bolt-on by marketing teams looking for a quick sales fix.”

If we look at the expectation-experience gap and the numbers that have us questioning brand purpose, we'll see how true this statement is.

You can’t pick a purpose and bolt it on to your business. You’ll be talking the talk without walking the walk! And this is so, so common for brands to do this kind of thing. They’ll “make a commitment” to something- call it purpose but it is really just a campaign. Then they don't change their culture or their actions to support what they’re saying.

3.   It Has to Be Organic

So, what can we take away from this? A lot of us scrambled to find a purpose during the early days of the pandemic. And I think what we’re seeing now is not that purpose doesn’t work, but that a lot of us missed the mark. We either grabbed on to something we thoughtwas our purpose (but isn’t) or we’re not “walking the walk.”

If we’re not walking the walk, it’s often a result of the former there too. We’re not actually talking about our brand’s real, true purpose, but what we think it is. That’s why it’s so difficult to walk the walk; we’ve “bolted on” a purpose that doesn’t fit our brands.

That’s not always true, of course—in some cases, it’s tough to walk the walk, especially in the middle of a crisis. We might want to take care of our employees. We might want to commit 100% to sick days, but so many business owners are feeling such a squeeze right now. Can we even pay the rent, will we even have a business tomorrow? If we pay employees like we want to, we might not!

How Do You Enact Purpose?

So this brings us to a bigger question: how can we make sure we’re enacting purpose, even in the middle of a crisis?

There’s no single answer to that question. That’s because purpose looks different for every brand. So enacting it will look different too. It would look a little weird for an insurance company that provides peace of mind to do TikTok dances. A company that emphasizes community might upset people if it cuts funds for local sports. A restaurant committed to environmentalism will draw fire for using non-biodegradable takeout containers.

What does this mean? It means we have to think about where our actions are coming from. Boardroom decisions can sound good on the surface—using those cheap plastic containers could help with supplier issues or even cut our overheads. But they may not be organic. Someone saying, “You need a TikTok strategy!” might sound like a great idea, because you know TikTok is super popular right now. But the question we have to ask is if it actually lines up with our brand, our purpose.

From here, we can start to figure out what enacting purpose looks like. And once we have that, we can start thinking about how to enact our purpose even in the middle of a crisis.

Crises often force us to think “short term.” That’s where our community-minded business might look at pulling funding from team sports. Those are short-term strategies to help them ride out the crisis. Same with the restaurant that switches to cheap plastic containers. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. You had to close up for a bit, and your revenue dropped. You suddenly needed more takeout containers to deal with the UberEats and SkiptheDishes orders—which are the only way you’re making money right now.

Those plastic containers are enticing—but only if you’re thinking about the right here, right now. Even in the middle of a crisis, we should be thinking about the longer term—because enacting purpose is a long game. You can’t say, “Oh, we’re really committed to the environment, but we’re putting that on hold right this second and we’ll get back to being green when this is all over.”

Instead, we should be looking at how we can uphold that environmental commitment, even through the crisis. Is there a way we can adopt eco-friendly packaging? Maybe there’s a way we can offset using the cheaper plastic stuff for the time being. As much as we have to respond to the crisis, we have to do so in a way that upholds our long-term strategy.

If we don’t, then we start making decisions that “hollow out” our commitments. It starts looking—and feeling—like we’ve bolted on a commitment. And if we adopt a new position, a new “purpose” in the middle of the crisis, we have to remember that’s long term too. So we can’t say “we’re all in this together” and then when the pandemic is over, slash extra benefits we gave our teams. We should look at these initiatives and say, “How can we turn this into a long-term measure?”

If it doesn’t make sense in the long term, it’s not reflecting our real purpose. It’s something we’re bolting on in the moment, because it’s convenient or sounds good. And we might even believe it in the moment, but it’s not going to pan out over the longer term because it doesn’t actually match our business.

So, like always, we have to get back to the core of our brands, that organic root of everything we do. And when we do that, the actions we take should seem like a natural extension of that.

And that means we have to start with the why!


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I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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