‘Social purpose helps brands thrive even more so in times of uncertainty’

Brexit has caused us all – both individuals and organisations – to do a lot of soul searching in recent weeks. Those businesses that thrive in times of uncertainty, however, will be the ones that focus on purpose, says Michelle Keaney, founder of Three Point Zero and partnership director at The Marketing Academy.

Michelle Keaney

Post-Brexit, the news has been littered with stories of large corporations warning they could move their headquarters out of the UK, of entrepreneurs concerned about securing funding and of brands mitigating against the wavering health of the pound. Needless to say, all roads lead back to ‘uncertainty’, an unwelcome guest that brand owners and economists alike struggle to deal with.

While the fallout of Brexit is beyond our control, how we choose to relate to this uncertainty will ultimately determine the success of our brands. As author Charles R Swindoll said: “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.“

There is no denying that at times like this, it’s tempting to go into survival mode – cut costs, cancel discretionary spend, reduce headcount, batten down the hatches and wait for the uncertainty to pass. And we are witnessing many organisations already moving in this direction.

But there is an alternative, one that will demonstrate there can be winners in times of crisis, those that are able to navigate their ships through choppy waters.

Create certainty in uncertain times

To be a business that provides certainty in times of uncertainty, you have to have an inspiring orientation point, be dynamic, driven and keep up momentum. This comes from your purpose and your culture. Both are unwavering commitments to something bigger than just surviving the circumstances you currently face.

A strong sense of purpose and a well-defined culture creates clarity for customers, employees and investors on the value you add to the world and your strategic focus.

Companies that exude strong, purposeful cultures, for example, can continue to attract the best people and loyal customers, even when budgets are tight.

Purposeful culture can be a point of stability even when strategy might be shifting every few months or weeks. As the saying goes, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, so an investment in ‘who we are’ is shrewd at a time when ‘what we are doing’ might be hard to predict.

In fact, if Brexit has highlighted anything, it’s that many of us no-longer look to our national identity for our values. Brexit surfaced clear divisions in the UK – in versus out, north versus south, haves versus have nots, progressive versus conservative.

Businesses – where we work and who we buy from – therefore have the opportunity to provide beacons of identity in these uncertain times. They become values-hubs which we align and identify ourselves with. In many cases, we may find we have more in common with the people we work with every day, than our neighbours or compatriots.

To see how powerful purpose, values and culture can be in weathering the storm, you have to look no further than The John Lewis Partnership.

Purpose leads to profit

The core focus of John Lewis is “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business”. This mantra helped it steer the brand through the recession, resulting in record profits in both 2012 and 2013 at a time when competitors were shrinking or going out of business.

True to form, even in the post-Brexit chaos, it has confirmed plans to grow its own-brand home business into £1bn of annual revenue by 2020. A business in ‘survival’ it is not.

So enough of the doom and gloom. It’s time to end the survival strategy – no one ever achieved greatness through shrinking. Instead, as brand owners you can choose to invest in a thriving strategy. This means getting back to core purpose, values and culture and making them your competitive advantage.

For when the waters are choppy you need the strongest boats and most able crew to stay afloat. And to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of ‘The Little Prince’: “Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love.”