Observations by Anne Bahr Thompson
In just a few short months COVID-19 has radically altered the landscape around us, bringing into sharp focus the importance of balancing purpose and profit, the importance of what I call Brand Citizenship, a concept I’ve advocated for years. More so than before, it is clear that the advancement of humanity writ large and focusing on the economy and financial health and wellbeing are not mutually exclusive concepts. And now, as the global pandemic is heightening awareness of the importance of stakeholder value, achieving the SDGs, and ESG performance, the world is ready to advance this critical conversation. And, I’m all in.
While the future is uncertain and ultimately multi-sector buy-in among corporations, non-profits, government and civil society is necessary, all businesses large and small have the opportunity to pivot to purpose, reimagining how we define success in the next normal.
It is for this reason that after spending some time working in the not-for-profit sector I am returning to my roots working with and for brands – leveraging my knowledge and past research to help corporate powerhouses and small businesses alike thrive, not only survive in our ever-changing world. To demonstrate true leadership as we look to find new solutions to the increasingly challenging systemic issues we face.
Over the past year, as the climate crisis has risen to the top of the public agenda, citizenship – or being an active participant in society – has become an intrinsic element of business leadership. Without a doubt, the global pandemic has strengthened the call for companies to step up and solve our individual ME needs and desires through the products and services they offer alongside delivering more value to society: the collective WE. Across the globe, COVID-19 has accelerated the need for companies and their brands—their human faces—to redefine success and bring hope that we can live, work and play in a more balanced and harmonized manner.
Shaping a better next normal
Beginning in 2011, Onesixtyfourth’s CultureQ research project indicated that people desired business to step in and help progress society in the absence of their trust in politicians to do so. Business leaders have seen this call steadily increase over the past decade, exponentially now with a demonstrable breakdown in trust of government during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s exciting to see the growing number of leaders emphasizing social value as much as financial gain.
True leadership comes from having a vision and inspiring people to follow. In the absence of prophets, people seek leadership by connecting with other people through shared purpose and meaning. For decades, social connection and cultural belonging have been key to the way brands create demand, whether demand for a product or service, or demand to work for or with a business. And an essential stage in cultivating these drivers is creating a sense of community.
As I have re-examined the five steps of our ME2WE continuum of Brand Citizenshipâ in light of COVID-19, I see what was previously a more linear pathway morphing into a more fluid, circular journey, one in which Trust is defined by living up to claims of being a purpose or values based business as well as delivering on product and service promises. The interplay between demonstrating Responsibility, Community and Contribution in actions is growing, as is the importance of these elements to cultivating Trust. Companies that don’t walk their talk will be called out – and run the risk of becoming irrelevant or even obsolete.
Trust begets Trust
As the crisis continues, brands that have significantly invested time and money into building Trust will be relied on to shape our ‘next normal’. And companies will find ways to leverage that trust to bring us together, to restore community cohesion and inspire collective action to solve the systemic problems we face. This will be both through communications and through new, unexpected programs and experiences – virtually and physically (once we emerge from sheltering in place in our homes). We are all learning so much about enhancing experiences as we explore new ways of being together virtually and innovative engagement tools are sure to come into play.
While I hope that the pandemic is a great reminder of how we’re all interconnected as humans and a part of – not separate from – the natural world, I also fear that it may increasingly encourage bad behavior and that divisiveness, especially in the US, will grow. Brands have an important role to play here, reminding us of our shared humanity and how we all fundamentally look out for one another and care about our communities. Creative, retail, and hospitality brands will have a responsibility to reframe physical spaces, making them more organic in feel to restore the physical connections that we as humans crave. Indeed, they will have to create their ‘next’ to motivate many to move beyond the fear of human contact.
People will remember brands for their acts of doing good during the coronavirus pandemic. Some brands that faltered will be forgiven, and those that behaved irresponsibly, showing no empathy and only self-interest, will not. Although much of government policy has focused on the economy versus health, for most people the issue is one of ‘and/also’ not ‘either/or’ – it’s about saving lives and livelihoods. In the research that resulted in Onesixtyfourth’s proprietary model of Brand Citizenship, it emerged in part that trust stemmed from selling products and services at a fair price for fair value. The crisis has extended the concept of fair value to be about more than the intrinsic elements of a product or service for many people. Fair value now also includes efficacy of purpose – how companies support employees, local communities, supply chains, marginalized populations, and the environment. Responsibility alongside Enrichment, in the language of Brand Citizenship. People will demand greater transparency, and brands will have to demonstrate behavior that is sincere, aligned, and material.
The time to act is now
Now is the time to accelerate stakeholder capitalism as the importance of elevating all of society and not just the economy has become critically clear. After all, the economy won’t be healthy if people’s welfare is insecure and we burn through our environmental resources. After the pandemic ends, the challenges we face will not lessen. Indeed, they likely will have increased and require immediate action. The ME2WE continuum of Brand Citizenship provides a framework to guide decision making, prioritize actions and align activities across functional departments. And I’m excited to be all in again working with leaders, social entrepreneurs and impact investors navigating our shifting reality and committed to shaping a better next normal.