COVID-19 has been a baptism of fire for brand purpose. 

For years companies have made big claims about their commitment to each of their stakeholders, and all year these promises have been put to the test. 

Larger companies almost immediately rolled out massive charitable donations, from Facebook’s $20 million pledge in March to Jack Dorsey’s $1 billion pledge in April, and many clothing companies shifting their supply chains to create PPE that protects frontline workers. 

Yet brand purpose, especially in the eyes of consumers, requires so much more than large donations or empty platitudes. Especially in a crisis that promises to stretch on well into 2021, brands have to go the extra mile to prove their dedication to their customers and employees. 

Consumers want to see that brands actually care, and on that front, small actions matter just as much. 

Consumers care more than ever.

Asking consumers what they want from brands almost always produces results of “high-quality products”, and usually at an affordable price as well. The fact that supporting people through the coronavirus has now surpassed these factors points to the permanent changes in corporate social responsibility ahead. 

Even more than discounts, consumers want meaningful support.

They want to do business with companies that value the environment, and over 4 in 10 say brands should place more focus on social causes and the wellbeing of their employees. 

People want more support from brands

And these themes aren’t limited to the pandemic. After the world emerged from the strictest weeks of quarantine, consumers’ support of community welfare initiatives jumped.

The portion of consumers in Europe and North America that want brands to support local suppliers has grown from 31% in Q1 to 37% in Q2. 

Support for social welfare initiatives has grown most where the virus has hit hardest. Support for brands that donate to charity has grown 16% in Brazil for example, and 10% in the U.S.

For years, corporate PR teams have been promoting the idea that they provide value for their shareholders, as well as for their customers and employees. Now they have the opportunity to make good on those promises.

Small acts of kindness won’t go unnoticed.

Massive actions on behalf of brands have dominated the story so far. 

Tech brands have poured hundreds of millions into programs to promote everything from the right to vote in the U.S., to more volunteer days for their employees globally. The list of companies taking action on racial issues continues to grow. 

While these initiatives are important, there’s frankly a lot more opportunity to win or lose new customers through smaller, everyday interactions. 

Even though the typical tools brands use to distinguish themselves (retail environments, sales associates, packaging etc.) may be inaccessible, they can still increase their value in the eyes of their customers by focusing energy on their digital experience, customer service quality, and even the social issues they choose to support. 

To date, certain companies have proved invaluable to their communities. In response to record breaking unemployment figures around the world, for example, Coursera opened up 90% of their course catalogue to help retrain workers for new professions.

Similarly, Salesforce has extended their services to healthcare workers for free. 

When your competitor is just a click away and your customers are relying on a website to judge a product, what your brand stands for could become a hygiene factor in market competition moving forward. 

Customers will be won and lost through everyday interactions.

Customer service has always been important. But in light of so many big, attention-grabbing, COVID-fighting initiatives, we shouldn’t overlook the everyday, personal interactions that most affect the bottom line.

In 2021, customer service won’t just be about providing helpful advice quickly, but about being empathetic as well. 

This can apply at any stage of the customer experience. It could mean investing in giving quicker responses from support teams, using more video or face-to-face communication, providing more flexibility in payments and returns, or helping people with their transition to digital channels. 

Consumers are holding companies to account

As our research shows, caring – and being genuine about it – is far from a “nice to have”:

3 out of 5 internet users say that bad customer service would negatively affect their purchasing decisions, while nearly half say bad press would do the same.

Some companies have demonstrated a new focus on care and compassion. Zappos set up a mental care hotline for customers to call for any reason, and Hallmark gave away millions of free greeting cards. 

Smaller businesses, without such deep pockets, can lean on their deeper integration with local communities. Many small restaurants are delivering their goods for the first time to meet customers where they are, while scores of grocery stores have implemented new store hours and other precautions to make customers feel safe. 

Consumers want to be treated with respect more than anything. Charitable giving and eco-consciousness are up there, but companies who fail at customer service run the biggest risk of losing market share. 

Brand purpose in 2021 should ideally combine these two initiatives: promoting big-ticket social causes on the one hand, and demonstrating empathy in everyday interactions with customers on the other. 

The little things mean a lot

The coronavirus has offered brands a unique opportunity to demonstrate the value they create for all of their stakeholders.

At the height of the pandemic, with economic uncertainty abounding, employees, customers, shareholders, and suppliers all looked to what companies were doing to help out.

Consumer needs and values are changing, which means going beyond offering the best product at the best price. 

In the next 12 months, brands need to question the next stage of their COVID-19 response – is it empathetic enough to customers on the ground? 

This is a recession as well as a pandemic, and previous recessions have shown us the importance of brand building to future prosperity. In today’s environment, brand building is more tightly-wound with brand purpose than ever before.

Best case scenario

Even if the prognosis for COVID-19 improves through 2021, brands will still need to help manage the collective trauma. The pandemic will have lasting effects on our finances and mental health for years to come, for which there’s no vaccination. The brands that can be there when consumers need them most stand the best chance of success.

Worst case scenario

The attitude that inspired early, ambitious responses to the pandemic will need to be maintained. If the first half of 2021 results in more new waves of infection, the same kind of initiatives will be needed just as much. Collective fatigue with COVID-19 will become more of an issue each time, and in the worst possible scenario businesses will have to lead in fighting that fatigue. 

Click to access our connecting the dots 2021 report

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