The coronavirus, with its unprecedented impact on travel, retail and day-to-day life, has sped up several key consumer trends, leading more people to stream media and rely on e-commerce than ever before. Even after signs of normalcy return, the lasting effects on marketing will also be significant, and could enshrine brand purpose — which was already gaining traction pre-pandemic — as the new industry standard, analysts said during a webinar hosted by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) on Thursday.

“Disruptions just wipe the slate clean and clear away the obstacles that had held the next big thing in check,” said Walker Smith, chief knowledge officer for branding and marketing at Kantar Consulting, during the webinar.

Marketers refining their purpose strategies could be paramount in the months ahead, even as many deal with harsh economic pressures brought on by the pandemic. In a new study, Kantar and the ARF analyzed 45 purpose-driven campaigns, selected based on awards recognition and social listening, and found success is rooted in three principles: brand precedence, where an organization has an established history championing a cause or positioning; partnerships with people outside of the organization who are passionate about the cause, which lends credibility; and commitments to offering tangible solutions over the long term versus a one-off stunt.

“The campaign should have precedent [and] should connect to the core of your business,” Sarah Capers, SVP, client partner at Kantar, said on the virtual panel. “If you do those things well, it should feel, in retrospect, like an obvious move.”

Yet, new purpose-driven efforts will additionally need to take into consideration the realities of a world in crisis, with an expected premium to be put on hygiene, localization and messaging that stokes unity and builds confidence among deeply uncertain consumers, according to Smith.

“People are demanding that brands not just deliver better self, but a better society as well,” Smith said. “The political and public health context of the moment is going to clear the way for this to emerge even more quickly.”

A new era

Major consumer brands like Dove and Nike have driven discussions around purpose in recent years, but the pandemic could push the approach fully into the mainstream, panelists said.

“This whole idea of the public and of society and of others is a new ethic for brands,” Smith said. “Whatever personal ethic people may have for themselves, this is an ethic that they are expecting brands to follow through on.”

The move away from the personal and toward the public would mark a paradigm shift for the industry.

Smith broke down three eras of marketing, starting with the focus on product that defined the sector from the Industrial Revolution through the end of World War II. With the post-war economic boom, marketing moved to center on the individual and self-betterment, resulting in a creative renaissance. Since the Great Recession, marketing that’s more aligned in politics and social causes has steadily bubbled to the surface, but could make a larger leap to the forefront now as consumers increasingly look to brands to fill the gaps where other institutions fail. That leap would usher in a new era centered on the public, and Smith warned that continuing to strategize around product and person alone will no longer be enough to succeed in that environment.

“If that’s the only thing you are doing, you are vulnerable to other brands who do that, plus step into this public role,” Smith said. “If brands want to grow, they’ve got to appeal to a broader base of people … Purpose is probably the best way that brands can make that kind of public commitment.”

Leading by example

Examples of strong purpose-led strategy have started to emerge in recent weeks, and could serve as a model for others to follow. Marketers in categories spanning food to cosmetics have repurposed manufacturing facilities to produce essential materials for front line workers, including hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment like masks.

“These could well become bigger opportunities for these brands going forward,” Smith said.

For brands well-known for marketing around purpose, the pandemic acts as a sort of proving ground as well. Unilever’s Dove, for example, recently pivoted its long-running Real Beauty platform to spotlight healthcare workers marked by wearing masks in an ad called “Courage is Beautiful.”

“It really demonstrates the power of a purpose and how a purpose is relevant for the long haul,” Ann Green, SVP, client leader​ at Kantar, said during the discussion.

Brands not typically aligned with purpose should not be scared off, either. Smith cited the frozen food brand Steak-umm as a standout case where a marketer that seems like an odd fit for filling a public need is thriving at the moment. The brand has leveraged its Twitter account to share tips on handling the pandemic and to dispel misinformation regarding the coronavirus.

“It’s been doing such a good job that it’s even gotten recognition and endorsement from other kinds of medical and health institutions,” Smith said. “That’s the kind of role that consumers expect.”

Others might simply need to center their marketing on building up consumer confidence as the economy faces the worst downturn in modern memory. It’s likely that many consumers will remain extremely cautious even after the pandemic passes, but purpose, when executed well, can be a lever for allaying those concerns, according to Smith.

“If you want a job for your advertising, reassure consumers about the future; give them some sense of confidence that the future is something that they should invest in,” Smith said. “That is going to be a crucial requirement for this recovery … That’s where I would look as opposed to trying to do something clever with your branding.”