Event Coverage, SPECTRA 2020

Trust erodes if brands withdraw from purpose in tough times: Kass Sells

Day one of Spectra 2020, the online conference on reputation management saw Kass Sells, Global Chief Operating Officer & President, International, WE Communications deliver a keynote address on corporate purpose. As the title of his presentation – ‘In times of crisis, does purpose still matter?’ – suggested, Sells spoke in detail on the very critical subject in the current times.

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the global economy and while the scare is far from over, countries are gradually treading the path to recovery. In a crisis like this, does it make sense for businesses to look beyond purpose and focus mainly on commercial gains? Sells thinks not. In fact, he is of the view that the time is now more than ever for organisations to delve deeper into their purpose and look at it more than just a buzzword.

“Purpose has to be much more than a CSR programme, more than just ticking the box. It must be aligned with a brand’s values. Purpose is a higher goal. One must go beyond the short-term, self-interest and really needs to answer the ‘why’. Why does your organisation exist? Why do you do what you do? And how you are making a positive impact in society,” he said.

While the pandemic is a tragedy on a grand scale, Sells looks at it as a chance for leaders to reflect on the way things were (pre-COVID) and assess what’s to come next. Communications, he believes, will play a vital role here being the catalyst for change that it is.

“It is an opportunity for brand communicators to harness the power of communications to fuel progress, our next normal, to bring hope and create opportunity, to change the way brands communicate and the way consumers understand them,” said Sells.

“We can foster compassion. We can show people a new way forward. We can tell new stories. Communications can illuminate our shared humanity,” he added.

WE’s guiding principles to purpose

Highlighting how these are times that an organisation needs to stand firmly more than ever behind its purpose, Sells listed the five principles at WE Communications to purpose and purpose action.

  1. Stay true to your purpose
  2. Be prepared to act
  3. Speak truth, be clear
  4. Be human to the core
  5. Good communications start at home

For each of these principles, Sells cited the example of a brand that has used them to tackle the prevalent challenge of our times.

For instance, Intel has been clear about its purpose and how it is staying true to it in the current environment. The company, in a multi-pronged response to COVID19, committed $60 million to accelerate access to technology for patient care, speed scientific research and enable online learning for students.

“Authenticity is key and ensuring that you continue to act with your purpose is important,” Sells said.

Similarly, for the second and third principle, Sells illustrated with the examples of Reckitt Benckiser and Avon, respectively. RB’s commitment to community health and hygiene in India and Avon’s firm stand against domestic violence exemplified the companies’ resolute corporate purpose.

“Purpose provides direction. It is rooted in the truth and authenticity of the way you work and who you are. If your work doesn’t align with your purpose, you are doing something wrong because purpose is your North Star.

If the brands tend to withdraw from purpose during tough times, it leads to the erosion of trust that has been built over time,” Sells said.

These are times when people expect brands to lead by example and drive social change and purpose in this exercise is key. According to a Kantar report, Sells pointed out, brands that can deliver on purpose in ethical ways see a growth in its value twice as much as average brands.

With that Sells led to principle number four that he called his favourite – be human to the core. According to him, this is the right time for brands to express humanity, support communities and be a source of escapism.

“Brands that experiment with technology in new ways to connect with their consumers in meaningful ways and authentic ways will be remembered and be top of mind in this new normal,” he said.

About the final guiding principle – good communications start at home – Sells noted that this is also the time for businesses to engage with employees in purposeful and meaningful ways.

“Start now. Start yesterday!” he remarked.

Herein, he cited the example of HSBC. The commercial banking arm of the company initiated an employee engagement campaign called Drumbeat that drove internal communications to the next level.

In closing, Sells reiterated how critical it is for brands to prioritise purpose in times of crisis.

“The world and our industry have changed immeasurably in 2020. We can’t expect to return to a communications environment that existed before the pandemic. With the challenges and changes, we have the opportunity to use ‘today’ to be better. Chief among such opportunities for brands to lead with purpose and drive influential change across the world. This means change at an individual level, at a local level, at a country level, and a global level. Together we can do that,” he said.

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