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The Purpose Evolution

Liz Carson

sailboat travelling through a rough sea with cloudy sky. Purpose is the rudder of the sailboat of a brand in times of crisis

What does brand purpose mean in 2021?

Just over a year ago, I wrote about purpose-driven companies. Remember pre-COVID-19?  A world where we hugged freely, coffees weren’t virtual, and the word ‘unprecedented’ was used sparingly (and without cringing).

So, here we are living in “interesting times.” 

A global virus, racial injustice, economic uncertainty, and the glimmer of a vaccine to save us.  Interesting is one way to describe it.

COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives.  For business, it has been the biggest reset I can remember.  Companies have had to re-tool how they build growth, promote services, and support remote teams.  Industries are also seeing a great divide. Many industries are struggling to stay afloat, from tourism to hospitality, whereas others such as digital health and e-commerce are rapidly accelerating.

Consumers are also changing – sometimes daily. Some behaviours – such as buying local and online shopping – show staying power. Yet, one of the largest sentiment shifts in the wake of COVID-19 is the hyper-focus on value-led brands. 

This makes sense. In times of crisis, personal values matter more than ever. Back in March, we all felt the need to help, whether it was banging a pot in praise of front-line workers or companies sourcing PPE.

Fast-forward to today, the sentiment of “we’re all in this together” is met with a raised eyebrow as pandemic fatigue has set in, so has some skepticism.

People wanting to connect with the brands they buy is not new. What is different is this connection now comes with more accountability.

Today, our authenticity radar is highly tuned for the brands we prefer. This is not perception, but fact.  Our Proof CanTrust Index data shows ‘values close to my own’ is the top reason Canadians trust a company as the pandemic took hold in 2020.

The strongest brands have always had a clear sense of purpose. Values that are baked into the culture, operations, and future-thinking. Yet, 2020 challenged businesses to re-evaluate purpose on a more intuitive level.  Today’s shift is towards a more collaborative purpose – where brands deeply understand the people they serve, meaningfully connect in cultural moments, and use their voice to mobilize positive change.

What it means to be purpose-driven has changed – and some brands are taking note.

The evolution of value-led brands:

1. Build communities, not customers

Today, most CMOs rate customer-centricity as a top priority. This is for a good reason. For most of us, 2020 has felt like an emotional rollercoaster.

So, being razor-focused on how people think and make decisions is key.  No one understands this better than essential underwear brand, Knix.

Since 2013, Knix has tapped into the inner motivations of its audience via social listening and learning.

This is a brand that knows what makes their target – women – tick.  And it’s not just a certain type of woman – it’s ALL women.  That’s right, every shape, age and colour.

But this is more than just optics in marketing.  From fertility to mastectomies, this brand has created a community of women focused on embracing their bodies just as they are. 

Last spring, Knix launched Age Doesn’t Matter – a campaign amplifying the voices of their very real customers – women 50 to 81.  Posing and snapping to Demi Lovato’s track Confident, these women rocked their Knix and reminded society women are beautiful at any age.

As one of the fastest-growing intimate apparel brands in the world, this brand’s community defines its actions.

I’ll snap to that.

2. Purpose and cultural relevance

When was the last time a brand made your life better? 

There were certainly a lot of opportunities in 2020.

Social distancing and quarantine took a toll on people’s physical and emotional health, especially among youth.  

Unilever’s haircare brand CLEAR saw this as an opportunity to support what their community was going through.  By tapping into this cultural thread, their pandemic response – Clear Resilience – took shape.

This global initiative, created by resiliency experts, helps younger generations build and flex their resiliency muscles during challenging times.  From the science of resilience to mobile mental health games, this online forum gave their community the tools to collaborate and a roadmap to manage in the early days of the pandemic.

But cultural relevance can also be in the briefest of moments.

So, Burger King’s infamous tweet ‘Order from McDonald’s’ deserves a slow clap too.  True to its brand, this irreverent fast-food chain surprised as it urged consumers to spend and bail out restaurants – including its arch-enemy McDonald’s – employing thousands of people.  Classy.

3. Brand purpose only counts… if your brand has a purpose

Purpose can’t be faked. It is not a one-off campaign; it is a company’s reason for being.  When it comes to high-performing brands, purpose is an action, not a press release.

A brand that embodies this best is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

This iconic brand has social activism in its DNA.  From sustainability to racial equity, Ben & Jerry’s has lived and breathed its social mission for the past 42 years.  Amid the political, social, and cultural upheaval of 2020, most see Ben & Jerry’s as a brand that gets purpose right.  It consistently balances its playful brand voice (“Together Pecan Resist” – genius) while holding onto its beliefs. 

Since 2016, Ben & Jerry’s has supported the Black Lives Matter movement and other progressive causes.  But in 2020, they moved beyond lending support to specific action calling for four definite steps to dismantle white supremacy.

This is a call-to-action from a brand that carries through on their “peace, love and ice-cream” values and has the track record to prove it.

Business can be a force for good

Like everything, business will be different post-COVID-19. But I suspect value-led organizations will continue this evolutionary path.  Why?  Purpose was already rising in importance, and 2020 has tested our values.  When we resurface, we will see consumption and purpose differently.  This global experience has shaped us. It has made us more human.  Supporting brands that make us feel like a part of something bigger.  Working in an organization that reflects our values.  Seeing how profitable and purposeful can co-exist, and even grow faster.  These are all indicators of the purpose-led journey we are on.

Our clients work with us on brand purpose, as they know we understand Canadians.  For six years, we’ve done a deep dive with all Canadians on the importance of trust: who sways us, how we buy, and where we put our trust.   While the future is still uncertain, organizations that lead from trust are likely better positioned to weather this time of exceptional change.  Their purpose acts as a rudder in stormy times.  It guides their actions.  They know who they support and why they are here, regardless of what they sell. 

All good things in a post-COVID-19 world.