Cracking purpose in a COVID-19 world

Our COVID-19 Barometer data shows clearly that, to thrive, brands must define their public role and act on it.
21 May 2020
Activating Purpose
Sarah Capers

Head of Brand, Consulting Division, North America

Josephine Simple

Cultural Insight & Brand Analyst

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The verdict is in. Our COVID-19 Barometer data, which surveys over 30 markets and over 25,000+ consumers, has made it clear. Now it is not the time for brands to step back. Only 8% of Barometer respondents believe brands should stop advertising. And over 75% of respondents think they should be actively sharing how they can be helpful in this new every day. As always, people expect brands to take an active role in their lives and the world.

Disruptions like the one we are currently experiencing can accelerate or amplify growing trends. For years now consumers have been expecting brands to take on a larger societal role. COVID-19 has brought this new societal marketing era to the fore. To thrive, brands will need to define their public role and action on it.  

Before COVID-19, the brand team at Kantar and the ARF were already looking at how best to activate brand purpose. To that end we conducted a study with the goal of offering best practice guidelines for purpose executions (you can download the full report here). The same findings hold true of bringing purpose to life in this new reality.

Start with YOU. Create an authentic foundation that is rooted in who you are. Take actions from a place you know well. But it’s not all about you; it’s also about THEM. Put people, not your brand, at the centre. Involve them in your process. Give them something to do and empower them to amplify impact. And lastly, do something for THE WORLD. A purpose campaign isn’t any good if it doesn’t do good. Drive social change by solving problems, tapping into culture, and committing for the long term.

Brands that are successfully activating on purpose in this new reality are following this framework. And those that aren’t show why it matters even more.  


Nike exists to unite the world through sport. This brand purpose comes to life in full through Nike’s “Play for the World” campaign. The brand that believes every individual is an athlete found a way of empowering that athlete within us as part of the collective effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

This stands in contrast to the many COVID-19 commercials that all have a similar aesthetic and message, which have already been cut together into a revealing YouTube compilation. This is what can happen when a campaign isn’t deeply connected to who you are at your core. That authenticity is what makes a campaign stand out. Entering the conversation for the sake of saying something, without having something unique and ownable to say, won’t do much for your brand.


Tieks is a brand most known for their handcrafted ballet flats, but today they’re gaining recognition for spurring a social movement. Shortly after social distancing measures were put into place, Tieks launched operation #sewtogether, an initiative that gifts up to $100 in brand gift cards to encourage at-home sewers to make and donate masks to healthcare facilities with shortages. They’ve now donated well over half a million masks, creating a wave on social media and exemplifying the impact a brand can make when they provide a platform and empower people to bring it to life.

Not including people in your campaign will not only limit your impact, it can also have detrimental effects. Yelp launched a go-fund me for each of the small businesses on their platform, offering to match up to the first million donated, but the company didn’t ask the business’ owners if they wanted to participate. This caused an outrage among some restaurant owners – Nick Kokonas of the Alinea group called it unconscionable on Twitter – demonstrating how imperative it is to involve the folks you’re seeking to support and serve in your campaign.

The world

True to their legacy of innovation, HP quickly mobilised their technology, expertise, and digital manufacturing community to battle the COVID-19 pandemic at an industrial scale by 3D printing critical equipment including face shields, masks, respirator parts, and hands-free door openers. With the goal of making as much positive impact on the world as possible, they made these hospital-grade designs universally downloadable, so anyone with a 3D printer can produce personal protection equipment and ventilator parts to stop the spread and save the lives of their neighbors.

When activating on purpose, brands that aren’t meaningfully contributing to the world today run the risk of seeming tone deaf. That’s what happened with Popeyes’ “Fried Chicken and Chill” which addressed the COVID-19 quarantine by promising to give out its Netflix password to the first 1000 people who posted a pic with its chicken. The brand activated around COVID-19, but didn’t address any of the pressing social concerns, despite how top of mind they are for everyone. It earned Fast Company’s brand miss of the week. 

So, brands: You have your work cut out for you! If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to define your public role. What is the positive impact you want to have on the world? Articulate it. Make it clear to your internal and external stakeholders. Then move, swiftly, into action. Use the YOU / THEM / THE WORLD framework to transform brand campaigns and activations into lasting impact for the world. The payoff will reverberate.

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