Sixty-two percent of global consumers say their country will not make it through the current crises if companies don’t step up. Customers and employees are looking to their favorite brands to help solve problems, creating an enormous opportunity for companies who are purpose-driven.
But while purpose is essential for any brand today, just having one is not enough: Brands are on trial. Stakeholders are calling brands out on hypocrisy, mixed messages and failed initiatives. Even companies that thought they had a clear purpose need to prove they are investing in substantial change and not just “woke washing.”
Defining and living your organization’s purpose is hard. It’s messy. And it’s never-ending. But the most successful companies in these trying times will derive their purpose from shared human values, stay true to what they do and relevant to what their stakeholders need. And they’ll act on it every day.
These four companies are using purpose in powerful ways, and working hard to live it in challenging times:
Citi: Inspiring growth and progress
Citi’s purpose–to provide financial services that “enable growth and progress”–took on electrifying new meaning as the economic impact of the pandemic shook its employees, customers and neighborhoods. Citi went beyond what most banks did – loan forgiveness and mortgage relief– to not just delay devastation but truly deliver on that purpose. “Citi’s mission and purpose have long been rooted in enabling growth and progress. As the world continues to search for solutions to address the global pandemic, racism, and more, at Citi we know that our role is to identify issues to stand for and influence in order to enable relevant and meaningful progress for our clients, colleagues and communities,” said Mary Ann Villanueva, Director of Citi’s Brand Culture and Engagement.
Efforts included committing $100 million in support aimed directly at that promise of progress, launching Restarting Together to encourage startups supporting society through the crisis, helping customers secure PPP loans, and helping those most impacted by the pandemic including the World Central Kitchen and National Disability Institute and many more. Citi has also expanded beyond financial progress to support racial equality through recent campaigns and commitments to the Black Lives Matter movement, including investing in Community Development Financial Institutions, which play a vital role in low-income communities and communities of color.
Airbnb: Deepening authenticity
When a company’s purpose ties directly to what it does, brands feel more authentic. This becomes even more important during times of change. Airbnb exists to “create a world where you can belong anywhere.” With sweeping travel restrictions and lockdowns, the company had to pivot quickly to find new ways to express hospitality. Open Homes for COVID-19 frontline workers gave hosts an immediate way to help. And it began creating online experiences that allow guests to learn new activities and meet people from around the world. By enabling people to connect, even while stuck at home, Airbnb is finding new ways to stay relevant.
Glossier: Listening builds a shared community
Shared purposes are not just relevant to one audience, they are felt deeply by each–employees, customers and communities. That calls for genuine listening to make sure that actions, products and services align with the values and beliefs of those stakeholders. Glossier’s purpose is “to give voice through beauty” by “leveraging the power of the personal narrative.” Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Glossier’s most frequent request was for a product to help with increased irritated skin from repeated handwashing. Inspired by stories and comments, Glossier quickly developed a hand cream, donating thousands of units to first responders.
The company is also recognizing that obsession with that external community has a downside, leading it to prioritize the needs of customers over that of its own workers, especially people of color. When shoppers engage in racist behavior, for example, the company’s “the customer is always right” stance gets toxic. Glossier isn’t running away from that dissonance but trying to learn. The lesson? Make sure your purpose is grounded in shared human values–including employees–and take responsibility when things go wrong.
Walmart: So actionable, it’s indispensable
The final dimension emerges when companies demonstrate that purpose is not just an empty promise. If companies can’t deliver, it doesn’t matter how inspiring or authentic they are. People pay attention to what brands do, not what they say. Walmart has long struggled with negative perceptions. But it continues to make progress through finding new ways to act on “saving people money so they can live better.”
Because of its vast size, it pays great attention to subtleties and the importance of multiple actions. Among the steady drumbeats that help all people “live better”? In addition to cash bonuses for employees, it’s closing all locations this Thanksgiving to show gratitude. It introduced Express delivery so customers can avoid crowds. It turned parking lots into drive-in theaters, showing movies for free. And in requiring all employees and shoppers to wear masks and supporting expanded testing efforts, it’s helping everyone.
Just as people look to friends, family, and government during hard times, they are holding a magnifying glass up to businesses. Customers expect companies to treat people well, engage the community and evolve to meet a changing world. Workers are questioning employee value propositions. They want businesses to put people over profit. Words and actions matter.
Companies need to ask hard questions and revisit them often. Does your purpose…
- Make the world better? Even companies with a pragmatic purpose can inspire others.
- Create believers? When businesses connect purpose to the way they earn money, it’s authentic and makes perfect sense.
- Apply to all audiences? The right purpose resonates with employees, customers, communities and investors.
- Translate into action? If an organization can’t deliver on promises, everything else is pointless. Enabled by leaders, companies constantly need to bring their purpose to life.