With racial inequality and Covid-19 jostling to dominate headlines and conversations, brands face an unaccustomed requirement to take stands on not just one but two vital and pressing social and public health issues. The result is bringing to light the importance of having a purpose beyond profit.

“The two are intertwined,” according to Jennifer Granston, Chief Customer Office of Zignal Labs, a provider of real-time brand and influence intelligence. “Covid-19 set up a perfect storm in a way that’s making the social inequity piece bigger.”

Zignals’ tracking of conversations revealed more than a billion news reports on Covid-19 during the first months of the pandemic. Although it seemed inconceivable that anything could shove Covid-19 aside, the storm of activism over unequal police treatment of Black Americans did just that.

Drawing from Zignals’ monitoring of billions of conversation data points, Granston suggests Covid-19 focused Americans’ attention on social media and public discourse while limiting or removing other activities such as work and school. So when racial inequality hit the news, people were primed to react.

Zignal’s research documented the switch as the most discussed topics flipped. On May 12 healthcare donations was the most discussed topic, while racial/gender inequality were among the least-discussed. By June 3, racial disparity had rocketed into the top spot, far outpacing health donations.

Brands are unable to ignore the power and pervasiveness of the reaction to this development, Granston emphasizes. But the ongoing pandemic complicates matters.

“Corporate brands are realizing the need to talk about this issue and respond to this,” she says. “This also deserves a lot of focus and attention within the overall Covid-19 issue that we’re facing.”

‘Smart generosity’

While the challenge is undeniable, there are also clear examples of brands that have risen to the challenge. Speaking at a “Purpose through Pandemic” town hall discussion Zignal organized, purpose consultant Carol Cone identified several examples.

Cone’s highlights include Airbnb organizing an effort to provide free lodging to 100,000 Covid-19 healthcare workers in New York City and New York Life pausing cancellation of policies for people who need more time to pay their bill as a result of Covid-19. “It’s not just donations,” Cone stressed, labeling examples like these “smart generosity” for the way they pair corporate capability with social need.

Anheuser-Busch InBev is another example. Long before Covid-19, the brewer had well-regarded purpose initiatives around renewable energy and clean drinking water, noted Pablo Jimenez Zorrilla, Anheuser-Busch’s global VP of reputation and communication. It also had a corporate purpose statement: “Bringing people together for a better world.”

“Now the challenge is, what does being together mean when we are asked to keep social distance,” Zorrilla told the town hall. AB InBev’s Brazilian operations found a possible answer: use its manufacturing facilities and alcohol removed from non-alcoholic beers to make bottles of hand sanitizer.

“We very quickly grew this to 27 countries spread around the world,” Zorrilla said. “And we distributed more than three million bottles of hand sanitizer.”

At JPMorgan Chase, Stephen O’Halloran, head of corporate responsibility communications, said they had learned from the last recession that recovery from crisis tends to be less than fully inclusive. Looking long-term, they decided that this time an emphasis for the bank’s purpose implementation would be to help disadvantaged populations participate when recovery came.

“This is a challenge that’s been decades in the making that’s been exacerbated by the crisis we’re in how and will get worse,” O’Halloran told the town hall participants. JPMorgan Chase’s purpose principles, honed in part during years of helping Detroit and Chicago recover from financial crisis, include focus on consumers, small businesses, communities, jobs and skills and to use its corporate talents and resources to effect change in those areas.

“Going back to what we’re good at and what our principles are, how can we be sure that this time the recover from this crisis is inclusive?” O’Halloran asked. To answer, he began by listening to the communities, including customers, employees, local officials and other community stakeholders in the discussions.

O’Halloran says they have found that supplying communities with advice and support from the bank’s employees is one of the most valuable forms of assistance they can provide. And he says they’re using a data-focused approach that emphasizes concrete results.

“We try to treat it like the rest of our business operations,” O’Halloran says. “We are willing to test and shift if it’s not working. We’re going to have a plan to adapt as the situation on the ground changes.”

‘Time and a lot of consistency’

The coronavirus pandemic and the movement for racial justice are likely to be active for some time, but even assuming they eventually get resolved, other social issues will replace them. That’s why it is not too late even now for brands to embrace purpose. Waiting, however, is not the wisest choice, Granston says.

“The brands that have had a long-standing history of focusing on purpose, knowing their purpose and role and backing it with action on these issues are in a significantly different place than the ones who haven’t been thinking about it,” she says. “The ones who are scrambling now and on their back foot because they haven’t been thinking about it are in a significantly worse position.”

And, make no mistake, corporate purpose doesn’t just benefit society. It also benefits brands. “The research shows over and over that CSR is good for business,” Granston says. “Companies that have stated purposes beyond making money are successful companies. And that’s going to become even more important.”

The most effective purpose initiatives have some common characteristics. One is that they employ what Cone called smart generosity, matching brand capability and core competence with social needs.

Another, she stresses, is that purpose is not just window dressing but an actively pursued corporate goal. “When it’s activated, companies are focusing on stakeholders, not just shareholders,” Cone explains.

Other emphases include collaboration, authenticity, humility, patience and consistency. “If you don’t walk the talk internally and your employees and customers don’t feel that way, it’s hard for the community to feel that way,” O’Halloran says. “It takes time and a lot of consistency.”

Responding to Misinformation

In order to identify and respond to the social needs dominating the conversation, brands need critical information about what the conversation is. Zignal Labs research helps do that, and it also can identify misinformation affecting brands that is often part of the conversation.

One example includes the debunked rumor that cellphone towers somehow helped spread the Covid-19 virus. It’s often best to ignore even misinformation that specifically targets industries or individual brands, Granston says. “Oftentimes a brand engaging with it can legitimize it and bring more attention to it,” she says.

However, in cases like the cellphone misinformation, which led to actual burning of cellphone towers, Granston says brands can play a useful role. “For brands that have credible expertise on these topics, it’s critical that they’re watching,” she says. “The challenge is that if you don’t, and these theories take root, we’re going to end up with even more distrust around critical things, like vaccines.”

While that’s always been true, social media encourages the spread of niche theories to broader populations, Granston says. In an environment sensitized by Covid-19 fears and conversations, misinformation spread on social platforms can jump offline and create real-world havoc that brands may find beneficial to counter.

‘The Next Normal’

Covid-19 is arguably the biggest global event in the lives of most people living today. That doesn’t happen without lasting impact. As Cone puts it, “We are going in to the next normal. We’re not going back to normal.”

The best way to enter that normal is by making the most of today and we are at a real inflection point when it comes to corporate purpose. “This is a big opportunity for business to be part of the solution,” O’Halloran says. “This is it. This is the moment to be long-term about that recovery.”

Whatever else its historical relevance may be, Covid-19 has provide a flashpoint for corporate purpose and the importance of hearing and following conversations about it, Granston says. “This is a huge wakeup call for every company,” she says. “This is the call to action for CSR and for having really clear stated points of view on this this.”

As uncertain as the times are, waiting for clarity – which as recent events show may not arrive before the next crisis -- is not an option, she says.  “In a crisis is not the time to be figuring out your positon,” Granston emphasizes. “In a crisis is not the time to be wishing you had taken the steps to have the program in place to address these issues.”

“I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion on what’s next and what does activated purpose really look like,” she continues. “The brands that haven’t been thinking about this and haven’t mapped out their greater mission is when it comes to purpose and CSR topics including racial injustice are going to struggle.”

But it’s not all gloom and doom. The silver lining is that activating now can pay big dividends. “The companies that moved quickly because they had those programs in place and platforms in place and approved position in place are able to respond much more quickly to stakeholders,” Granston says.

“We saw that with Covid. We’re also seeing that with the issue around injustice,” she continues. “Early mover CEOs and people coming out with a strong point of view on this don’t have to think about it, because they have thought about it."