When my coworkers and I went home in early March, I wanted to tell them it would be OK. That we would get through this together. Then I checked my inbox and noticed every company that had ever gotten my email address was saying the same thing. This open-ended expression of solidarity has become the marketing theme of 2020.

Stripped of an ability to talk about stores and products and services, countless brands have adopted a message about values, responsibility and their role in the larger community. There’s a term for this: purpose marketing. And whether brands know it or not, purpose marketing comes with its own rules, standards and stakes.

Meet the new rules for every brand that has said, “We’re in this together”

On behalf of an agency that’s been in purpose marketing for decades, let me just say welcome. We’re glad you’re here. Here’s what you should know about what comes after your first purpose branding message.

1. The stakes are higher now

First, well done. Expressing a sense of humanity in this crisis is a good thing. As someone who found myself enjoying the NFL draft for the first time, I can say that these hopeful pandemic messages resonated deeply. But connecting on this deeper level comes with higher stakes. As consumers, we understand that sales and slogans are temporary by nature. But when we feel a company shares (or violates) our values, we remember. Brand reputation earned now will linger long after “this is all over.”

2. Actions are what truly matter

It’s natural that marketers want to tell positive stories to a public hungry for hope. But your brand’s first actions and words are not the end of the story. Companies across the country are rightly earning praise for their well-intentioned actions. Many are cutting executive salaries to maintain employees’ pay and benefits. Some manufacturers are shifting assembly lines to provide essential equipment for health care workers. And some high-profile retailers are offering benefits and pay for hourly workers sent home while their businesses are shut down.

In March, grocery chains across the country recognized employees and announced “hero pay” for helping Americans stay fed while at home. Grocers helped shoppers and employees stay safe in their stores with masks for employees, frequent sanitizing of carts, sneeze guards at the register and floor decals to help us keep our distance in line. These actions have created a new level of commitment that many grocers do not plan to maintain. We’ve already seen how shoppers reacted to an announcement to end hero pay this month. What sort of company demotes heroes? What will consumers feel when they continue to see billboards thanking demoted heroes long after their pay bump has ended?

3. Purpose isn’t a campaign

There are no shortcuts in purpose marketing. With traditional marketing, cleverness can win you attention and business all on its own. Think of all the funny Super Bowl ads, for example. Purpose marketing doesn’t work that way. Brands that tried to be relevant and demonstrate compassion through marketing efforts disconnected from their values have struggled. Adding space to a logo to encourage physical distancing felt like a PR stunt.

Organizations that continue to fill our inboxes with compassionately scripted videos from their CEO without real actions behind them will be called out.

4. Purpose is a long game

Purpose-driven brands know this approach is a process that spans years. Goodwill is earned with frequent deposits in the trust bank. It can be lost with one bad story or a single tweet. And your own employees may be the ones keeping you honest—using their own social channels to broadcast what they see and feel about your company’s actions.

Airlines have been attempting to earn back business and trust with messages touting higher standards for cleaning planes between flights and protocols to support physical distancing. Some airlines offered to transport health care workers to communities with the greatest needs, ensuring their care and safety en route. Good intentions, yes. But the trust bank was quickly depleted when the first doctor shared an image of a full plane, middle seats included, on Twitter. How much goodwill can an airline lose by abandoning physical distancing precautions for the very health care workers it had vowed to protect?

Now there are two pressures on brands

Across the country, companies face economic and public pressure to reopen for business—often without clear guidelines for doing so safely. Or guidelines that hinder profitability. How, for example, can a movie theater stay in business at 25% capacity? At the same time, brands are living in a world where consumers and employees expect them to keep acting like “we’re in this together.”

With an increasing number of people returning to work, there will continue to be news of employers pulling back hazard pay and mandating but not providing masks, gloves and adequate space for their employees. And there will be a global audience on social media eager to hear how their new favorite brands are behaving.

Consumers are about to make a new series of lasting judgments

Despite their Instagram feeds, brands will continue to be judged on their pandemic actions.
Leaders like Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, whose words in the most difficult times are backed by immediate actions that are also rooted in values, will be praised. Brands like lululemon that took actions aligned with their ethos and purpose will be remembered for how they made an impact.

Younger consumers, in particular, are looking for an alignment of values before spending their time and money. If during this time consumers perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, 71% say they will lose trust in that brand forever.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. For decades, consumers have rewarded brands that deliver on their social values with their business. How will the public respond when a previously well-aligned brand acts in unexpected ways? How easily will loyalty shift?

The good news is that you have help

My words of advice for marketers and communicators embarking on this journey is to find smart partners. Inside your own organization, look to those with subject matter expertise in operations, customer experience, HR and supply chain management. Get comfortable with long Zoom meetings about data. You’ll find a whole new stream of powerful stories. And you’ll find topics to avoid even though they at first seem promising.

Outside your organization, a whole community is here to support you. AHA and our peers across the industry can answer your questions—helping you navigate the nuance and uncover powerful new truths about your business.

The bottom line is a lesson my kids brought home from kindergarten. Take a piece of paper cut into the shape of a heart. Crumple it up into a ball. Then try to straighten it out again. Once someone has given you their heart, they don’t want you to break it. Their trust is yours to keep—or lose.

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