By Nitin Mantri, Group CEO, Avian WE 

What people want from brands is evolving. Although slick marketing campaigns and viral ads still resonate, consumer demand has quietly shifted and advanced.

The modern consumer wants authenticity.

In our Leading with Purpose report, we found that 64% of consumers believed brands, instead of governments, are primarily responsible for social change. Making good products are table stakes and are no longer enough ­­­­— it must embody an authentic purpose.

In such uncertain times, this is even more true. It may be tempting for brands to retreat from their purpose and shift focus to their own financial worries, treating the balance between purpose and profits as a zero-sum game. At the same time, it is prudent to remember that consumers do look to brands during times of crisis. If brands were to withdraw from their purpose during tougher times, they risk blemishing their reputations and eroding the trust that has been built over time.

Reputation is tested in crisis — staying the course is key

Staying the course with a strong business purpose is the basis for a strong reputational narrative. Steadfast brands committed to purpose create a relationship with consumers beyond transactions — similar values and ideals forge stronger bonds.

A recent example of a brand that has embodied that purpose is global beauty brand Avon and its recent #IsolatedNotAlone domestic abuse campaign in India. As a brand committed to supporting women’s issues, it realized that the pandemic would cause those already at risk of domestic violence to become increasingly vulnerable. Staying true to its brand purpose, Avon crafted a campaign to fund NGOs supporting victims of domestic abuse, while raising awareness of the issue.

Another notable example is global cleaning supplies brand RB Dettol, which has doubled down on its purpose to pursue a cleaner and healthier world. Within India, it launched #HandWashCorona, a public health initiative in partnership with Bikers of Good to distribute Dettol soaps to the underprivileged. In total, RB distributed 10 million bars of soap across various campaigns in India. The company also pledged $37 million towards fighting the spread of COVID-19, clearly showing its commitment to the public health cause. This was the brand’s way to hammer home its purpose in the midst of crisis, while balancing the traditional need to maximize profit.

Start with your own employees

Brand purpose must start from within. Communication leaders play a part in forging the core values as one cohesive unit, and change must start with the people who work within a brand — their employees.

Indeed, in these uncertain times, employee engagement is more important than ever. Our recent survey with Quartz showed that 78% of respondents agree brands have a moral obligation to engage with social issues that impact their workforce. The health and well-being of those who champion the brand must be prioritized, especially as economies all over the world exit lockdowns. In this way, anxieties can be soothed as more clarity is provided, paving the way for better relationships in the future.

Our WE Brands in Motion study highlighted that 83% of consumers believe brands are capable of providing stability in crisis. Although it may seem like a small step to actively engage employees and look out for their welfare, it will form the foundation on which a strong business purpose can be built.

A notable example would be streaming giant Netflix, which created a $100 million fund to support workers in the media industry economically affected by COVID-19. This fund supports many of the cast and crew members whose productions had been suspended, and the brand even went so far as to provide $15 million to third parties and nonprofits dedicated to the film and television industry. This commitment to its industry fosters stronger ties among stakeholders, leading to positive perception and stronger brand reputation in the long term.

PepsiCo India also stepped up to the responsibility of supporting its employees. It rolled out healthcare initiatives for its staff, including a 24/7 medical helpline, increased medical insurance for employees working in the field and free counselling sessions to safeguard mental health. To ensure better work-life balance amongst staff working from home, the company introduced new guidelines for setting work boundaries and “no meeting” time periods as well. This holistic approach to employee well-being highlights the brand’s priorities and further strengthens its credibility to its staff and its stakeholders.

Shared Commitment to Purpose

For customers, employees or third-party partners, purpose should be the binding force that strengthens collaboration for all. An unspoken regard for it is upheld between brands and its employees; a tacit agreement to a bigger cause. If neglected, there can be a major loss in perceived respect and reliability, but when well done could lead to strong commercial growth.

Although COVID-19 has drastically changed what “business as usual” looks like for brands all over the globe, communication leaders have a role in rethinking the core values and principles that guide its purpose. More than ever, a fundamental change in the way businesses navigate our altered reality is required, a shift that will determine the success stories of the next normal. For brands looking to reinvent themselves, remember: Purpose begins from within.

This article was originally posted on WE’s website.