Purpose: Why the best businesses won’t lose their purpose in the pandemic

The full impact of Covid-19 is just beginning to emerge. With the highest death toll in Europe, 27% of the workforce on the public payroll, and confusing messages coming from the Government, businesses are fighting for survival and uncertain how to navigate the way ahead.

During the next few months, products, customers and teams will be lost but what should not be lost are the values that guide decision making and the core purpose of individual firms. Whilst the immediate focus for most businesses right now is survival, serving customers whichever way they can, and keeping employees busy and productive, decisions still must be made. And corporate purpose is the lens through which these decisions should be viewed, weighed, and actioned.

We see purpose as an articulation of why a business does what it does – its core reason for being. For Google, it is to organise the world’s information. For News UK it’s to ‘tell the stories that matter, seed ideas and stir emotion, capture moments, meaning and magic and make sense of the world’. For Tesco it is the more concise ‘serving shoppers a little better every day’ and for PWC it is ‘build trust in society and solve important problems’. Each of these promises is far reaching and ambitious. They articulate a need – ‘a galvanising thought’ – and make these organisations relevant to the wider world. Crucially, none of these should be hindered by the disruption of Covid-19 and the havoc it’s creating on our society and economy.

As consumers of these products and services, we hold organisations to account on how purposeful their actions are. Never has this been truer than right now. As we struggle to make sense of the vast quantity of information being published on the pandemic, reading between the headlines and finding the truth of the matter, we want the organisations in our lives to do what they promise. We want the choice, value and quality produce that supermarkets provide, and we want our financial and professional services organisations to put their best people on the case solving both the health and economic issues.

Yet some firms are already under intense scrutiny – banks, insurance firms, travel businesses, airlines – as they clamour for public subsidy, drag their heels on reimbursing customers for lost holidays and payments to suppliers. When that happens, when they fail to practice the purpose that they preach, their reputation is knocked. Insurance firm Hiscox is facing the dual threat of class action litigation and a reputational battering because its behaviour in the pandemic directly conflicts with the promises made in its advertising. When push came to pandemic, they did not really have their customers’ backs after all. With a stated purpose to ‘give people and businesses the confidence they need to realise their ambitions’ they will need to work hard to come through Covid-19 and rebuild their trust as a partner to British business.

Virgin Atlantic has received much criticism for asking for public subsidies whilst Richard Branson is judged to have gone to great lengths to avoid paying taxes in the UK. Virgin Group has lived it’s purpose to ‘change business for good’ – it has been a great disruptor in many of the sectors it has entered, from music to aviation and even rail – but in the face of Covid-19 the one thing it really needs to do is take responsibility for its own survival.

Every business needs to take the time to review its purpose and consider whether it remains as is to be reinforced with employees and customers, or whether it needs refreshing, strengthening so it can be honoured in both good times and bad. Leadership teams need to assess, on an on-going basis, whether the actions they are taking reflect that stated purpose and, if not, can they be prevented or adapted so that they do. For example, if customers cannot get through to the call-centre because it is over-whelmed should the FAQ page of the website be updated and promoted. As we are seeing right now, communications experts have a vital role here, ensuring the purpose is lived both internally and externally and working with the leadership team to ensure it remains in place whatever happens.

The obvious and easy choice at a time of crisis is to go quiet while you focus on operations.  But this is the time when stakeholders and customers want to hear more. In a context of uncertainty, they want to know that you are doing what you’ve always committed to. Nothing flashy but communications that stay true to the values and promises you make as business, showcasing the people behind the brand, their experience, insight, and ideas.

We believe the pandemic will galvanise organisations around their values and purpose. Yes they will attract scrutiny when they have to make redundancies or fail to honour customer promises, but if their purpose continues to articulate clearly the need for their business to do what it does, stakeholders will see that it’s vital that they continue.

Written by Harriet Rich, Managing Director, Corporate & Business

If you would like to discuss defining and communicating your organisation’s purpose, please get in touch with our specialist purpose team.