When it comes to purpose, train for a marathon — and prepare to sprint

Brands must develop purpose platforms with long-term endurance and agility to respond quickly in a fast-changing world, says Hannah Peters, EVP at WE Communications.

It’s critical to understand your brand’s position in your industry and compared to brand peers, says WE's Hannah Peters.
It’s critical to understand your brand’s position in your industry and compared to brand peers, says WE's Hannah Peters.

I’ve been a runner since my early teens, through every changing phase of life. One thing that hasn’t changed? My pace. Whether it’s a marathon or a 10K, I’ve always been most comfortable at a steady nine-and-a-half-minute mile. I know that sprints and speed training make me a better distance runner, but I still resist incorporating them into my routine.

I see a similar type of resistance to step outside established comfort zones — to “sprint,” so to speak — in many of the clients I’ve counseled. Most leading brands have embraced the necessity of addressing societal challenges like climate change, racial equity and economic hardship. They understand the “long-distance race,” the need to create enduring policies and programs that support business objectives and drive positive social change. 

But in our increasingly fast-paced and dynamic world, brands also need to master the sprint. 

In WE Communications’ global survey of consumers and b-tob decision-makers, the 2021 Brands in Motion report, expectations for brands to create stability in uncertain times rose by 30% since 2019. Most consumers and b-to-b decision-makers want to hear from brands very frequently. In fact, 58% said that to be considered a leader on social issues, brands must comment at least weekly and, in some cases, even more. In addition, 70% of respondents say executives should convey their personal positions every three months at minimum.

The need to keep pace in the “marathon” isn’t going away; 72% say they prefer that brands make long-term investments in single causes rather than switch issues from year to year. 

But in deciding when to sprint, here are key questions to consider:

Is there a business case for taking a stand?

Before speaking out, evaluate the business consequences. Will your tweet alienate core customers? Will your silence harm recruiting or cause conflict with existing employees? It’s important to get a clear look at where you stand and what makes sense for your brand and your industry. 

How do our employees feel about the issue?

Brands must work to understand employee expectations and have a robust internal communications infrastructure before the next controversy erupts. Nearly half of our survey respondents expect brands to reassess their internal communications on social issues at least every three months.

What do our priority external stakeholders think?

In our survey, two out of three respondents are more likely to purchase or recommend products or services from brands that address social issues that matter to them. However, one-third of the respondents say that brands should not act or comment on societal issues. The bottom line is you’ll never please everyone. So focus on your priority stakeholders’ top concerns.

Is our own house in order?

Before your brand or its leadership decries racial injustice or the climate crisis, make sure that company operations live up to its stated values. Act first, speak later. Make sure you have an internal commitment to DEI before tweeting #BlackLivesMatter. Examine your company’s sustainability practices before asking consumers to fight climate change.

What are our competitors doing?

Over the past decade, brands have accelerated speaking and acting with purpose. It’s critical to understand your brand’s position in your industry and compared to “brand peers.” On some issues, you might want to be the first mover. Other times, it might be prudent to wait until enough competitors or brand peers take a stance. Just remember, it rarely pays to be last. 

Finally, breathe. These times can be stressful. But whether your brand is setting the pace, or just getting warmed up, every brand has the power to create positive change and develop purpose legacies that have both endurance and agility.

Hannah Peters is EVP of corporate reputation and brand purpose at WE Communications. 

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