The Power of Purpose When Things Go Wrong

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Leaders of international brands are acutely aware of how quickly they can be drawn into global controversies. It can feel as if the next big political or cultural missteps is right around the corner, with the potential to explode globally overnight. Earlier this year, Mercedes-Benz found themselves in Beijing’s crosshairs for with a social media post quoting the Dalai Lama. GAP faced similar backlash for its decision to sell and later apologize for a controversial t-shirt design. H&M came under fire for its word choice on a sweatshirt. The list goes on.

Brands, like people, are imperfect. Mistakes will be made. But we’ve seen too many reactive statements that hope for swift forgiveness. We’ve learned that superficial statements only go so far—often in an unfavorable direction. Brands that consistently articulate the why of their brand, before something goes wrong, are better positioned to weather a potential storm. It is the clear and understood purpose that will help maintain community support when a crisis hits.

There are three essential ways a brand’s purpose should guide leaders through a storm. For companies that find their purposes are falling short, it may be time for a revisit.

Train leaders on purpose, and how to live it

Great brand purposes don’t just tell a compelling story about why a company does what it does, it provides a strategic and moral framework for guiding decisions across all levels of the organization. It energizes their internal and external tribes driving product development to community engagement, to diversity and recruitment. But the true measure of purpose is the alignment with values.

As we’ve seen in headline after headline across every industry sector, from financial services to technology to media, a companies’ true purpose is reflected not just in how it motivates, but in how it addresses its customers in those difficult situations. Purpose also governs how executive compensation model motivates good versus bad behavior and sales practices, how companies responsibly use, guard or share user data.

Apologize with conviction. Align delivery with timing

When a brand gets out of sync with people, a reset is expected. In most cases, saying sorry in an authentic brand voice can diffuse the situation. But delivery is everything. Last month, a GAP product decision quickly spiraled into a viral political discussion when a Canadian customer posted photos of a T-shirt featuring a map of China that left out disputed territories like Taiwan and islands claimed by Beijing. GAP Brands issued an apology for its use of an “incomplete map” of China and removed the shirts from China after customers objected. This apology, however, itself became a political football with global customers deeming it insincere. Writing an apology can be an opportunity to lean into and more broadly communicate your purpose and values. Unfortunately for GAP, that opportunity was missed, with the promise to destroy—rather than recycle—the shirts, in a move completely disconnected with today’s environmentally conscious audience.

Don’t distance yourself from your community

People value brands that value them and align with their social and economic values. Purpose-driven relationships can also shorten the news cycle for a crisis moment, allowing time for the brand to course correct. In contrast, brands that focus on transactional selling leave themselves open to a reactive groundswell should a misstep occur. Contrast the apology of United Airlines removal of a customer on an oversold flight to that of Starbucks following an incident involving two African American customers at one of their Philadelphia stores. Starbucks backed up their authentic brand apology with bold action, closing stores for cultural sensitivity training and setting up a fund for minority start-ups. These actions reflect the values of their leadership, their tribe, and their purpose in society. And they resulted in positive public sentiment and a shortened news cycle, good news for any brand.

AWAY and IKEA are companies with a clearly defined purpose-driven brand. People understand, embody and rally around these brands as a community. The tribe is vocal, self-directed and active within the belief economy. There is a continuity in the sense of meaning, purpose, and pride within the engaged brand community. Companies without a clearly-defined purpose can find missteps more difficult to navigate.

While brands cannot prepare for all consumer reactions, they can proactively lean into a clearly-defined purpose and value system. There is no question that we must remain vigilant about racial, political, and cultural sensitivities. But in the event of a misstep, it is the power of purpose and the strength of a brand’s essential tribe that will help companies recover.

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