One year, three major challenges. How brands are changing in response

Social justice, the need for purposeful leadership and the coronavirus pandemic have all forced companies to rethink how they operate, say comms execs at PRDecoded.

Clockwise from top-right: Rebecca Wilson, Noah Keteyian, Michael Hardwick.
Clockwise from top-right: Rebecca Wilson, Noah Keteyian, Michael Hardwick.

Brands have had to respond to three unprecedented forces coming together this year: COVID-19, racial and social injustice and the need for purposeful leadership. 

Rebecca Wilson, WE Communications’ EVP for Singapore and Australia, led a masterclass at PRWeek’s virtual PRDecoded Conference on Wednesday, discussing how brands can best articulate their authentic purpose in the current climate.

She referred to the Business Roundtable adopting a statement of corporate purpose one year ago that puts the interests of workers and communities above those of shareholders. 

“That spurred a lot of discussion and action last year, and CEOs like [former] Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario and Ben & Jerry’s CEO Matthew McCarthy are showing how brands can be outspoken, how they can lead with purpose and how they can connect their purposeful story to their audience,” said Wilson.

There is an “unmatched urgency” demanding purposeful leadership, she noted.

“We have reached an inflection point for defining the role of business in society, and it is no longer sufficient for brands and corporations to focus on maximizing profit at the expense of social good,” she said. “The public is increasingly looking for the private sector – brands, companies and organizations - to respond to issues like inequality, climate change and immigration reform.”

Attendee Vanessa Yanez, HP’s print communications team leader, noted that in 2020, purpose is not only front and center for brands, it also shows a company’s soul.

“Comms is at the center pushing for business changes,” she said. “Business has to change; we have to operate differently and [show what] are the things that need to be done. What that shows to the market is leadership and every employee taking on a role in that regard, which has been the most remarkable thing of all.”

One company that’s no stranger to leading with purpose is Australia's largest global retailer, Cotton On Group. Attendee Michael Hardwick, Cotton On’s CFO, shared that the company devised its purpose, which is to make a positive difference in people’s lives, in 2006. Every five years, it formally reviews its purpose, vision, strategy and values to make sure they are on track and relevant in an ever-changing society.

Over the last 12 years, Cotton On Group has raised $100 million and created its own NGO. Through a unique partnership with customers and team members, the Cotton On Foundation is focused on empowering youth globally through the delivery of quality educational projects in Uganda, South Africa, Thailand and Australia.  

“We expect we will raise another $100 million in the next four years and that is done in conjunction with our customers,” said Hardwick. “We are selling everyday essentials at point of sale to our customers who are not only engaged in the work we are doing, but it’s an opportunity for our sales team to have a connection and conversation with their customer at point of sale.” 

Before the pandemic, Cotton On sent staffers to Uganda to work in a village the company was helping.

“That’s an important part of their experience with us and their personal development along their journey with Cotton On,” said Hardwick.

The biggest factor changing the way brands operate this year is COVID-19, which has resulted in brands putting more emphasis on internal communications. 

“There is a renewed focus on employee engagement and internal comms, how purpose can be led internally and how employee voices can participate in a brand’s purpose story,” said Wilson. “At the same time, there is a challenging balance to be struck between a purpose-led company and sometimes making the hard decisions necessary to keep a business alive.”

Brands are also contending with social and racial justice in a new way, following the deaths this year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

“Brands must speak, and silence is deemed as complicity,” said Wilson. “Internally, this means thoughtful engagement with employees of color. Externally, this may look like reassessing problematic partnerships or brands with racist legacies.”

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