Purpose is not dead

by Carly Hilkin, Associate Director at FleishmanHillard Fishburn

I think we can all agree, things have been looking pretty bleak.

As countries around the world navigate the fallout and new reality of Coronavirus – mandatory shutdowns and closing borders, social unrest, extraordinary pressures on our healthcare systems – many of us are self-isolating, upended at home and watching the daily news, in a slight state of shock.

Many of us are worried for the wellbeing of loved ones, shopping empty grocery shelves and updating long message threads with friends on strange experiences from the day.

But just a few days into self-isolating at home, some positive stories stood out to me. Positive stories from businesses looking to help society.

I’ve also been having a debate with some of my colleagues over the past year or so and I am glad to say these stories help me draw a firm line under my argument: Purpose is not dead.

Allow me to make my case:

By now, most of you – at least those of you here in the UK – will have seen the news from cafes and restaurants offering free and discounted food for NHS workers.

Some companies are establishing a COVID-19 fund to support additional sick leave if employees have symptoms, and others are offering online learning services for free on a temporary basis.

Do some online searching and you will see the list goes on. Companies doing the right thing and supporting society in a time of crisis.

A more direct case in point is Morrisons. On Wednesday, the fourth largest supermarket chain in the UK actually amended its stated purpose to “feed the nation” as part of an effort to reassure customers during the coronavirus pandemic. And whilst this change was perhaps inspired by industry contingency plans already being put into place to do just that, there is no wrong in adopting the line as its core purpose. The key reason being it is authentic.

Morrisons was the first major UK supermarket to agree to pay all suppliers immediately to ensure businesses – small food makers and farmers in particular – do not collapse as a result of coronavirus. They’re launching a new range of simple-to-order food parcels next week, recruiting over 2,500 new drivers and pickers to support order delivery (offering up roles at a time when employment is scarce), and taking steps to support employees, including a colleague hardship fund for those unwell or dealing with financial difficulties.

In short: Morrisons actions back up its stated purpose. Its stated purpose represents why the company exists beyond making a profit. (Purpose by definition.)

The reason corporate Purpose has been called into question in recent years is a rise in brands jumping onto social movements that either i) are not relevant to the company, or ii) are not backed up by action. It can also be called into action in the event of ambulance chasing or greenwashing, e.g. running a campaign strictly for its PR value. Consumers are smarter than that.

It is in times like these that companies should embrace their core Purpose, to support their employees, their partners and their consumers and drive real change.

That is my positive take for you in a world of crisis.