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Brand purpose during COVID-19

Man walking down pink hallway

Long before the COVID-19 crisis, we knew that people want brands that are useful, and that they frame brands in terms of what they do, not what they say.

In a nutshell

  1. Brands are facing two major challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the financial crisis that it has set in motion.
  2. If you use your market position and brand purpose to be helpful during the COVID-19 crisis, you’ll leave a positive impression.
  3. You are remembered by your brand’s actions and the authentic delivery of purpose.

For marketers, it can feel like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Like their customers, brands are facing two major challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the financial crisis that it has set in motion. Brands need to balance social responsibility and a desire to help customers with the very real economic imperatives they’re now operating under, all while appearing to not profit from the crisis.

How brand purpose can guide you

At TRA, we’ve long banged the drum for brand purpose as a marketer’s north star. Purpose is valuable because it creates the framework for what your brand does and how it behaves. Your purpose must speak to cultural and social context of people’s lives, and it must authentically reflect the beliefs and actions of the company. But it must also connect with the influences—individual, social and cultural—that inform people’s responses at an intuitive level. The purpose then is not just relevant but also ‘feels’ right. It speaks to our inner emotional compass.

Speaking with Marketing Week recently, Debra Sobel, co-founder and managing director of brand purpose agency Verity London, said, “There are winners and losers, and the intelligent brands, the competitive brands, are the ones that realise they need to activate their purpose now. They need to communicate effectively and be authentic. In the long term they will gain.”

If you use your market position and brand purpose to be helpful during the COVID-19 crisis, you’ll leave a positive impression. But there’s little room for error. Speaking to WARC in February, Prophet senior partner and Asia regional lead Jay Milliken argued that the only appropriate marketing that could be done during COVID-19 is around public service (providing factual information around infection prevention) or CSR (offering tangible support to those affected.)

The evolving role of brands

Complicating things on a global scale is the growing mistrust of the motivations of political leaders (although New Zealand seems to be bucking this trend). People are increasingly looking to companies to solve major issues, rather than politicians. Forbes’ Billionaire Tracker is an example of this, helping answer, “what’s Richard Branson doing?” or “how is Jeff Bezos helping?” Branson was roundly criticised for asking staff to take eight weeks unpaid leave, starkly contra to Virgin’s brand purpose of “changing business for good.” If a brand, or a brand’s leaders, aren’t staying true to purpose, and if internal practices and policies don’t line up it, customers will hold them accountable. 

So who's getting it right?

So who is getting it right? At a local, enterprise level, Spark has removed data limits on capped broadband plans, waived late payment fees and is not terminating services for those experiencing financial hardship. They’re also expanding and accelerating their Skinny Jump programme to help people who find that cost is a barrier to having a broadband connection at home. It’s practical, logical support that will ease worries for their customers, and it aligns with their brand purpose – to help New Zealanders win big in a digital world. 

On a micro-level, chocolate brand Whittaker’s has built its brand on quality, honesty and generosity. Just prior to New Zealand going into lock down, they asked their Twitter followers to nominate people who deserved to be sent some chocolate during this difficult time. New Zealanders requested chocolate be sent to charities and volunteer groups, mums and dads who were feeling a “bit fragile,” grandparents in isolation, teams of essential workers, kind neighbours, and health professionals. Almost every request was personally responded to by the brand. Tactically, this was very successful: the post received 507 comments, 12 times more than their usual. But it took off because it was authentic to their brand purpose of generosity, while also providing a real service to New Zealanders desperate to stay connected with their loved ones during lock down. 

On an international scale, we’ve seen Alibaba launch an international B2B sourcing platform to connect medical suppliers with medical professionals. Major chains like Pret a Manger and Leon offered free coffees and 50% discounts to NHS staff before closing. The National Trust worked to keep their gardens open so the public could enjoy social isolation in nature. Banks opened early so elderly people could access their services before the crowds. All are examples of brands aligning what they do with their brand purpose to find an authentic, truly helpful offering for the public during the COVID-19 crisis.

Get on with innovation

It’s not all about altruism and moralising. As eloquently argued by Mark Ritson this week: “Make money, not moral statements. Get on with it.” Customers don’t need support or concern from brands, he argues, “they need us to do our job. To develop products and services that reflect the strange new challenges of the Covid summer ahead.” 

So the next step for New Zealand brands is to innovate to improve people’s lives. Don’t be afraid to think about selling things during this time. Everyone, from enterprise businesses to SMEs and start-ups need to think about how they will make money moving forward. But listen to the mood of the nation, listen to your customers and test every idea and piece of comms against your brand purpose. Are you helping people? Are you staying true to your purpose? Are you bring useful?

Ultimately, that’s how you’ll be remembered – by your brand’s actions and the authentic delivery of purpose. 

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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