Last week, Campaign Asia, PR Week Asia and WE Communications co-hosted a roundtable for nine marketing and communications leaders from multi-national organisations across a diverse mix of sectors to discuss how they embed purposeful leadership into their organisations.
If Covid-19 has shown businesses anything, it’s the increased need to demonstrate purposeful leadership, not just claim it. For many, having a clearly defined purpose that is aligned to business strategy and is authentic has been key to navigating the crisis because it has provided an anchor that will continue to be critical to how they set up their organisations to emerge and recover.
2020 has driven new innovative thinking about how businesses live their values both internally and externally. Actions and impact will be at the core when it comes to rebuilding trust with consumers, shareholders, and employees.
“Leaders can no longer give lip service to purpose, they must lead with it. Purpose must be authentic to who they are and what they stand for," says Rebecca Wilson, executive vice president, Singapore & Australia, WE Communications. "What matters most is the motivation behind doing something and how genuine is it. Does purpose sit in marketing or does purpose sit at the core of the entire business?"
It pays to have purposeful leadership, too. Companies who both define and act with a sense of purpose outperformed the financial markets by 42 per cent, based on analysis by the Corporate Board/EY Global Leadership Forecast.
And according to a global survey of leaders conducted by Quartz and WE, 73 per cent believe purpose leadership will become as important as financial performance and that business strategy and purpose strategy will be more connected than ever before.
Purpose washing a risk: Authenticity is vital
The importance of company purpose is not a new concept, but what has shifted in post-pandemic times is how vital authenticity is. Purpose needs to be embedded in all that an organisation does. Purpose washing, or merely seeing purpose as an opportunity to generate profits, is not going to cut it with today's modern, savvy consumer or investors and shareholders.
"You’ve got to walk your talk," says Nicki Dewhurst, marketing director, Asia Pacific & Japan for Sophos. "You can put a big billboard up saying 'We care,' but the reality is that people are much savvier these days. The market is savvy, the consumer is savvy. You’ve got to be doing those things and walking your talk every day."
While we see lots of brands putting out generic messages about hope and care – 'we see you,' 'we care about you,' the challenge is how to stand out, remain authentic, and demonstrate the impact of your purpose.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that you might be part of something that is bigger than yourselves when it comes to purpose, whilst also identifying what makes you different,” says Damaris Treasure, head of strategic communications, City Football Group.
Balancing the books in a purposeful organisation
Amid a pandemic, balancing purpose and profit has been particularly challenging given shortfalls in revenue across many industries.
"I believe purpose and profit are mutually inclusive," says Wilson. "But we’ve had to rethink it through Covid.” There is plenty of evidence to support this, of organisations with a strong purpose that perform very well financially, but there is a reality that comes when business has declined, and difficult decisions need to be made.
“It’s about anchoring back to the core values of an organisation,” adds Wilson. "So it’s not necessarily about what you have to do but the way you go about doing it."
Not expecting instant gratification on purpose work is something that brands should also be mindful of, a sentiment recently echoed by Nicola Simmons, PR and influencer manager at Ben & Jerry’s, who has stressed the importance of "being in it for the long haul."
Purpose should be an organisation’s reason for being beyond profit, it is not something that should change with trends or news-cycles; getting this right will separate the people who are doing purpose correctly and the people who aren't.
“It's very easy to look at what's in the news that day and say: 'We're going to have a view on this,' but the minute it's out of the news, it's not important to you any more – so the next time you go to speak up about something in the news, people are going to be going, 'Hang on a minute, didn't you just care about this other thing last week?' These changes happen over time. It's not instant gratification,” said Simmons.
Impact more important than intention
With consumers and stakeholders demanding brands lead with purpose, organisation will need to put greater emphasis on its purpose in its business strategy. Taking real action and generating real impact is likely to be essential.
A recent survey by The University of NSW of its alumni community – 300,000 of them – found that while they knew the university's values, purpose, mission, strategy, and credentials – they were more interested in knowing exactly what impact the university is having in the community.
"Talk more about the impact, less about purpose and values," says Fiona Docherty, vice president, international marketing & communications at The University Of NSW. "It seems blindingly obvious when you say it, but it comes back to asking what difference are we actually making."
Employee engagement remains a priority
Making a positive difference is becoming an expectation of brands, not just externally but also internally.
“As brands, we have to be very cognisant of who we are, who we associate with and what we do," says Clare Cahill, head of experience marketing, APAC, Adobe. “If we don’t act in a way that’s with purpose and have that voice out to market that says ‘we care,’ then I think it would definitely impact us. We give our teams a chance to propose local charities or organisations they want to impact, so it’s embedded in our employee culture and also are out to customers’ culture as well.”
But pleasing everyone is an impossible task. Leading purposefully, while keeping a business’s customer at the heart of everything it does, is a lot harder in practice.
"Brands that do it well have connected their core demographic and what they want, to what they’re doing as a brand, and they’re living that brand experience," says Craig Bonser, commercial director, Quantcast. "They are walking their talk and delivering on that, but also having a feedback loop and involving their customers, understanding what they want."
Looking to 2021
Ultimately, brands that look to their purpose and, more importantly, act on it, are likely to emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.
"2021 presents the opportunity for us to keep and refine the things we needed to learn to navigate 2020," says Grant Smith, head of corporate communications, Melbourne Airport. “‘Defining the future of work’ is a live conversation in our business to explore how we can build on what we learned this year, so that we continue doing them with purpose in a way that can help us better understand who we are as an organisation as well.”
"Brands that continuously link back to their values and purpose can navigate the inevitable issues and challenges that businesses go through all of the time much more effectively than those that haven’t got those core attributes right," says Wilson. "It’s about anchoring back to the core values of an organisation so it’s not necessarily about what you have to do, but the way you go about doing it."
Take heed, marketing and communications professionals. As much as we’ve seen 2020 drive an outpouring of purpose-led campaigns, we know the expectations of consumers, investors and employees have changed; they expect organisations to be making a positive impact on the world. In fact, 64 per cent of executive leaders believe brands, rather than governments are primarily responsible for driving social change.
2021 looks to be the year of demonstrating the impact of purpose, a year in which stating a purpose and company values will not be enough. Organisations will need to authentically and consistently demonstrate their purpose to stand out from the crowd.