Purpose and the pandemic: is this the turning point for business?

Purpose and the pandemic: is this the turning point for business?

With the pandemic promising to deliver profound change in so many areas of life, some sectors are beginning to see purpose as critical to business. But is the cumulative power of covid-19, Black Lives Matter and climate change enough to force business to put people and planet on a par with profit and if so, will it last?

When upmarket retailer Selfridges launched Project Earth in August, focusing on clothing rental, second hand clothes and product repairs, its management made its views on the subject clear. The company’s Managing Director Anne Pitcher told The Guardian: “I think the pandemic has changed everybody’s thinking forever.”

Selfridges, she says, is betting that covid-19 has changed the way consumers shop and that we will buy not just from companies we trust but whom we also believe “care”.

But is she right?

More than just a marketing gimmick

Jenna Keighley, Chairman of the PRCA’s Reputation group and Managing Director & Chief Thinker at Mixology Communications, argues that this year is a tipping point for purpose in business.

“Purpose-driven narrative is not the result of covid. The trend of society wanting brands to do more has been building for a number of years,” says Jenna.

“All sectors have looked and seen in a cold and objective way that ‘purpose’ is growing in value but that those that have been successful have incorporated it into the heart of the business – it’s not just the job of Marketing.”

Jenna Keighley

Tesco won’t be beaten on price

Some major businesses, however, have not read the runes in the same way.

In July for example, Tesco entered a price war with Aldi by giving its suppliers just days – in the midst of the pandemic – to drop their prices.

Such action could be a more typical sign of corporate behaviour to come, says Peter Bowles, Chief Creative Officer, global PR agency Clarity.

Peter says, “Covid is a huge moment of societal change and it’s going to set the tone for the 20s. But you can have big moments and then a recession – which is where we are now – can send everything back. These things can be short term.”

Mark Pinsent, Managing Director, Europe, The Hoffman Agency, agrees, arguing, “Brands are wanting to communicate more around the values they know their ultimate customers are concerned about but my concern is how long-lasting will it be?”

He adds, “If we get through this, unemployment goes down and people are out there spending, will business still want to focus on ‘purpose’? Corporations tend to react to their external environment and let’s not shy away from the fact that companies exist, especially if they are publicly-listed, to make a profit. And that’s not cynical, it’s business.”

No time for marketing bullshit

The last thing that society wants is to see companies playing to the audience as a way of papering over the cracks in its behaviour, believes Stuart Lambert, Founding Partner, Blurred.

Blurred pledged only to work with companies that sign up to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals last year.

Stuart says, “Genuine purpose is in danger of being swamped by awful marketing bullshit. Purpose is not a campaign linked to a social issue. Purpose is the reason you as a business deserve to survive and thrive in a challenging new world. And it can only exist with any sincerity as an outcome of an honest understanding of your business’s impact on the world, negative as much as positive.”

He adds, “The bottom line is businesses will have to change if they are to survive in the long term. All businesses. And their brand will naturally reflect that. But of course many won’t: they’ll retreat to short-termism and usual behaviour. Those businesses might be ok for a few years, but long-term they have no future”.

Stuart Lambert

Does the board share your values?

Jenna believes the willingness of business to adapt to society’s changing values – whether driven by calls for greater diversity, sustainability or a more caring outlook triggered by covid – will be driven by boards. They, she believes, will be led only by personal experience or market forces.

One of those market forces is the younger generation, and this is where Mark places is hopes for positive change. And perhaps that is where Selfridges has placed its bet with Project Earth – on a forward-thinking younger generation that is willing to switch to a business that reflects its values and puts them into practice.