How do you balance trust, distinctiveness and purpose in a crisis?

It’s a thorny question.

We’ve all received the same emails, seen the same TV ads, noticed the unprecedented use of the word ‘unprecedented’ as brands jump over one another to tell us that times are tough, we’re all in it together and they’re here to help.

While there’s no doubt we’ve seen a lot of brands do a lot of good during the COVID crisis, we’ve also seen others where something isn’t quite working: either they’ve got their brand building wrong or they’ve struggled to make their actions and communications cut through.

To explore this topic further, we held a Clear Conversation on the issue of trust, purpose and distinctiveness with four senior marketers from around the world:

  • From Japan: Akira Mitsumasu, VP of Global Marketing for Japan Airlines.
  • From Singapore: Sulin Lau, who heads up Marketing across ASEAN for Singapore’s biggest Unicorn – Grab.
  • From Ireland: Adam Murphy, Head of Brands in the Global Brand Development Team for Ornua – Ireland’s leading exporter of Dairy products
  • From the US: Karen Schnelwar – VP of Global Brand Strategy and Marketing consumer products company, OXO
  • From the UK: Damian Symons, Global CEO of Clear

You can watch the session here:

So, what’s going on?

As Damian pointed out at the beginning of the discussion, marketers are under pressure now more than ever to make the ‘right’ decisions to build their brands whilst reassuring their stakeholders and communities, often in distressed commercial situations.

Make the wrong decision and the backlash is real – in the UK, Sports Direct had to awkwardly apologize and reverse after initially deciding to stay open as an ‘essential business’ despite other retailers closing their doors. True or not, the public perception was clear – they were more interested in their profits than their people.

Make the right decision and the opportunity is significant – to continue building your brand through the crisis while also supporting customers, consumers and society at large when they need it most. Damian raised the example of Lego which has continued to demonstrate its purpose – to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow – through financial support to children’s educational charities and repurposing online educational content while also reconfiguring its manufacturing lines to make visors for healthcare workers.


How can brands strike the right balance?

As Karen succinctly articulated, ‘the key is knowing who you are, staying true to who you are and being there’. There is no playbook for marketers to refer to at this point. But marketers can use their organization’s purpose, values and brand as a north star to guide decision making. 

There’s no doubt that demonstrating empathy and humanity are important – brands need to be sensitive to the situation their customers and employees are in right now. In the words of Akira, ‘we are going through a global crisis, we are all sharing experience [and] it gives us a sense of unity that we are all in this. It’s only natural that we show empathy and compassion, there’s nothing wrong in that… but at the same time we can be distinctive in salience and making a positive difference.’

However, rather than considering purpose and distinctiveness as separate levers to pull, the two should be considered symbiotically. As Adam pointed out, ‘it is possible to dial up emotion distinctively but it needs to be done in a way that’s connected to your brand, how people actually perceive your brand, and then it will land genuinely and authentically with those consumers.’


Authenticity, sincerity and culture are key

Our panelists agreed that using and communicating purpose does have a role to play in the crisis, but only if it’s meaningful, genuine and embedded within the organization, its culture and its actions.

Sulin was clear in her point of view on the topic: ‘if you weren’t born with a purpose it’s hard for a marketing person to fake it. If you have to fake it, don’t lead with purpose, lead with extremely good utility.’ At Grab, the team see their purpose as solving friction and problems in their region, which has led them to explore many different ideas of how they could help their communities. The question they’re grappling with is less coming up with ideas about what they could do, but more which they should prioritize to drive the biggest impact amongst their stakeholders.

For Akira, getting it right comes down to Japan Airlines’ organizational philosophy, which directs all employees on how to behave as a responsible member of society. In his words: ‘whenever we have doubts, face trade-offs we refer to this philosophy for answers. It helps us prioritize. Purpose is about intent. It’s guided by shared values of employees in the organization.’


Action first, communication second

Fundamentally, what really matters is what your brand does, not what it says. As Karen articulately stated: ‘if you’re going to pull the heritage lever it should be in the service of people right now, it shouldn’t be an end in and of itself. The worst thing you can do is seem naïve, tone-deaf, self-serving or out of touch with everyone’s everyday.’

Our panel agreed that not all brands are equally well positioned to get this right. Indeed, many organizations are financially distressed and lacking the resources or capabilities to make a significant impact on the crisis. However, all brands can and should be thinking about how they can be useful in a way that is sincere and true to their brand.

As Sulin put it: ‘even if you can’t be distinctive, if you can be useful, if you can be extraordinarily, boringly, useful, in a time of high distress that’s not a shameful pace to be. You have to have trust and trust can come from expertise, from being a really good tool… Distinctiveness is great, but sincerity and authenticity are much more important.’


Clear jobs to be done

In conclusion, if you’re deciding what to do next, focus on action over communication and deliver consistently in a way that’s true to your brand.

There is no exact science, no single right answer, no one size fits all. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but not impossible. Get it right and brands will make a long-term difference to both their communities and their bottom lines.