There can now be no doubt that companies should play a role in society beyond selling their products and services. The gestures we’re seeing from commercial brands right now are heartening. We should expect nothing less during a time of crisis.
But what does this look like after the storm?
For most, a return to "purpose" as a marketing tool would be an outright failure. If COVID-19 becomes a tipping point for purpose -- meaning instead of wondering whether it’s necessary, we instead think about how far it can be taken -- we have plenty of evidence that companies and society will benefit.
What is being overlooked by many is that a framework already exists to make this happen, in a real and meaningful way.
It was developed by the UN, and companies that use it grow faster and get greater marketing benefits as a bonus side effect.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were created by the UN so governments, businesses and other organisations could work together with a common framework to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues.
Unilever is one company that has aligned its strategies and marketing to purpose and the SDGs in a way few others have. As a result, it has evidence to show that its purpose-driven brands grew 69% faster than the rest of their business.
As an added bonus, this drives sentiment, press and conversation too. When we analysed more than 10,000 pieces of news and press coverage about brand purpose over the past two years, Unilever received exponentially more coverage and social engagement on this issue than any other brand.
To take just one of many Unilever examples: the company has a commitment tied to the SDGs around "Opportunities for Women," which involves citizenship initiatives and partnerships (including with UN Women) that have real impact on the ground. But this also provides values to make its marketing more meaningful and promote female empowerment through its brand marketing.
By aligning with the SDGs, Unilever tied company purpose and values naturally, authentically (and much earlier than other brands) to Dove’s brand purpose around “real beauty.” The marketing side of things, however, is just one aspect -- a byproduct, and not the sole point.
The SDGs are, in short, a route to creating actual change, rather than tacking it on for marketing purposes. And the world needs this change - and needs businesses to step up.
A report that looked specifically into the impact of the SDGs for businesses (the Better Business, Better World report) states that not only do “businesses need the SDGs; they offer a compelling growth strategy for individual businesses [...] and the world economy,” but also the SDGs “need business: unless private companies seize the market opportunities they open up and advance progress across the whole range of goals, neither business nor the rest of the world will gain all the benefits.”
In short -- the world needs businesses to do this. The most enlightened firms have known this for some time. But now, we can see the evidence all too clearly.
We no longer live in a world where values-driven brand marketing alone is sufficient to gain or maintain consumer trust. Consumers are quick to do their research, challenge claims, and vote with their wallet by seeking alternatives.
Even now, lists are being compiled of what companies are doing right now to protect the rights and well being of their employees -- and those that do right will be celebrated.
When values lead, companies have an angle, a narrative, and a north star for what drives their behaviour and operations.
If a brand isn’t sure how to respond in a time of crisis, doesn’t know whether it should “take a stand,” or isn’t sure what to talk about outside of its products and services, then it’s time for it to think harder about what the coming years hold. There really can’t be any excuses any more. Everyone benefits.