Global Pandemic Puts Purpose to the Test

The global pandemic has pushed businesses to the limit and many that survive will be fundamentally transformed by the experience. Throughout this crisis, companies have been under an intense microscope with greater scrutiny placed on the social impact of corporate activity.

Consumers are looking for a response, a sense of direction and action; they want to see corporations lending a hand and doing better. In this year’s Edelman Brand Trust Barometer, 62% of respondents said they want brands to inform them about the ways they’re helping with the pandemic.

There’s a line to walk between keeping the public informed about a brand’s actions in this crisis situation and not being seen to exploit the situation. Already we are seeing the terms “corona-washing” or “pandemic-washing”, amongst others, for organisations that appear just to be piggybacking on the crisis, rather than stepping up in an authentic and purposeful way. As John Harrington, PRWeek UK Editor, highlights: “It's easier said than done, but in the current crisis, every organisation that markets itself with a wider purpose should consider doing more of the stuff that goes beyond gestures and directly helps people in need.”

Brands have risen to the ongoing challenge in different ways. From repurposing production lines to launching new employee wellbeing initiatives. Many companies have also taken appropriate purpose-driven actions and demonstrated a connection to the issues that matter most.

Being part of the solution

In the face of unprecedented changes and impacts on their own operations, many brands actively put resources, logistics, and skills behind the fight to combat shortages of essential supplies such as PPE and hand sanitiser.

At the onset of the pandemic, unlikely heroes that redirected production to manufacture hand sanitiser included luxury firm LVMH, UK -based craft brewer BrewDog, and global brewer AB InBev who worked with the American Red Cross to deliver sanitiser to communities in need. To fill the void of masks, gowns and scrubs, fashion brands such as Barbour used their garment factories for production, while Coca-Cola re-deployed resources to make face shields for those on the frontline in North America. In China, deployed drones to deliver essentials to remote areas and leveraged their supply chain capabilities to donate medical supplies to several countries around the world.

Supporting frontline workers

Countless brands have shown support for frontline workers by offering promotions and discounts as well as well as other support such as dedicated grocery shopping hours. Crocs donated its shoes to healthcare workers; beauty brands donated hand moisturiser to frontline healthcare staff; and coffee chain Pret offered free hot drinks and half price food to health workers. In Asia, RedDoorz, a budget hotel start-up headquartered in Singapore, joined other hotel groups to provide free rooms for frontline healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prioritising employee wellbeing

The global response to COVID-19 has also seen companies turn their attention closer to home and prioritise social responsibility to employees.  A survey by Willis Towers Watson revealed that two in five companies in the UK have made, or are planning to make significant changes to their employment benefit schemes as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Well-known brands responding with agility and implementing additional support for staff include Twitter, providing employees options to cover additional childcare expenses; Starbucks extending its mental health benefits;  and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) creating a COVID-19 fund to provide sick leave to affected workers globally, including all temporary staff, contractors, and vendors.

In a crisis of this scale, job layoffs - difficult at the best of times – become much more emotionally charged and a human and transparent approach is vitally important. Airbnb – a company centred around “belonging”- had the difficult task of letting almost a quarter of their workforce go. The company has been lauded for handling this necessary business process with compassion accompanied by action, including a generous package and post-employment care. As HBR discusses, “what companies do to help their laid-off employees — above and beyond what is required or expected — will be remembered and repaid in increased loyalty, higher productivity, and a lasting reputational benefit for many years to come.”

Competitive walls drop for the greater good

Rising positively from the crisis are case studies of collaboration and partnerships that overcome historic rivalries to create value and innovation. Two of the world’s biggest vaccine makers, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Sanofi, are collaborating on a COVID-19 vaccine: “As the world faces this unprecedented global health crisis, it is clear that no one company can go it alone,” Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson said.

This is undoubtedly one of the most vital unions, but behind the scenes there are many more examples of businesses overcoming competitive inclinations to usher in a new era of open innovation. For instance, the world’s leading 3D printing manufacturers, including HP, J&J, and General Electric have joined forces to respond to COVID-19 as a community to address equipment shortages and Ford, whose organisational purpose is “to revolutionize mobility, fueled by new challenges and creating solutions to build a better world for everyone”, is working together with the United Auto Workers, GE Healthcare, and 3M to build ventilators.

For industries that have been hit the hardest with COVID19, such as travel and tourism, competitive collaboration may be the only way to get back on track. The cruise industry is already seeing the likes of Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line team up to work with leading public health experts to create a stringent set of health and safety standards, helping to get the industry back on its feet after the pandemic.

The transformation of top-level partnerships to significant purpose-driven collaborations is increasingly important for corporate citizenship, even more so as we emerge from the crisis and plan for a ‘new normal’. As HBR highlights: “the world’s response to the novel coronavirus has taught us that a truly shared experience of a common enemy can unlock the speed, strength and creativity needed to address even the greatest challenges.”

 Making purpose count

The power of purpose is evident as companies around the world step up to help their communities during the COVID-19 crisis, making a positive difference at a time when their stakeholders are most in need.

Thinking about the future as you tackle unprecedented tensions of the crisis might feel challenging, but the way in which companies respond now will have a lasting impact on brand reputation and consumer expectations long after this crisis is over. Even in strained times, even more so in fact, organisations must continue to actively reassess business priorities and adapt to countless societal changes as the social contract between organisations and their stakeholders continues to change shape.

Corporate citizenship needs to be integral to a company’s purpose as the pandemic continues to drive companies to rethink their approach to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) priorities and demonstrate that they are taking care of the people closest to them, as well as the needs of society, the planet, and shareholders.