"This is a time when businesses and brands can be the biggest healers of our society," offered Aline Santos, EVP of global marketing at Unilever." "We must take that responsibility."
During the discussion, Santos and Laurent Ezekiel, chief marketing and growth officer at WPP, underscored the sentiments and strategies necessary for brands to answer that call. A key part of that counsel was both leaders sharing their definition of purpose during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"Purpose means doing, not just talking," emphasized Ezekiel. "Our industry puts out so many of the world’s messages. We can be an absolute force of change. We must show real action, though."
To exemplify that action, Santos cited the Unstereotype Alliance, a UN Women’s initiative in which both Unilever and WPP are involved. The partnership seeks to banish stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising and all brand-led content.
Santos noted how Unilever’s involvement has led to increases in brand impact and purchase intention. In addition, thanks to a collaboration with the Unstereotype Alliance, Cannes Lions last year introduced new judging criteria to champion equal representation and confront inequality.
A recurring theme during the session was the historical impact COVID-19 is having on all aspects of brand activity and operation.
Santos highlighted how employee and partner safety is a paramount focus right now. As an example, she noted that the company is rethinking how new products, often created by teams of people, are now being made.
Additionally, she noted her team’s displays of new kinds of creativity. Santos proudly cited Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity and Shakespeare’s creation of King Lear, both of which occurred during periods of plague-induced quarantine, as examples of unprecedented creativity during times of extreme crisis.
Ezekiel added how impressed he is by the speed with which his teams have created and implemented programs during the past few months.
Companies with authentic purpose already baked in have a huge advantage in being able to pivot quickly, he explained.
"I am hearing a lot from clients who want to re-interrogate their purpose post-COVID-19," noted Ezekiel. "Customers will want something more evolved."
Pragmatic challenges could test companies’ resolve, though. Even key issues such as sustainability take a backseat when organizations are fighting the powerful health and economic impact of a global pandemic.
Ezekiel countered, though, suggesting this could be the opportune time to take issues such as vehicle electrification, ride sharing, and autonomous driving – all programs that have taken longer than expected to grab hold – and accelerate them. It’s really about education now and advertising has a huge role to play.
"For brands to thrive in this moment, they must move at the speed of culture, which is moving faster than ever," added Santos. "And brands’ role in culture has never been so important."
In some cases, that means embracing rivals. Santos cited Unilever’s Lifebuoy brand of antibacterial soap. For the first time in its history, it created an ad that included its competitors – all with the goal of underscoring the types of products consumers should use to wash their hands and how they should do it.
"This is how you show leadership, build trust with consumers and show you are not being opportunistic," she explained.
The current protests around the globe in response to George Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis have placed the issue of diversity, inclusion and equality top of mind for all. Both Santos and Ezekiel understand the key role brands can and must play to facilitate the change so many now demand.
Santos highlighted the powerful statements made by Unilever brand Ben & Jerry’s about dismantling white supremacy. Its deep history of activism and purpose gives it the gravitas to speak out. More than ever, though, such brands have a responsibility to take advantage of that.
Ezekiel sees this as the spark that should spur brands not as steeped in purpose to step up.
"If your brand has never spoken before on the subject," he counseled, "you must be very careful about going out in the market now. On the other hand, this could be a great impetus to get involved in a cause, boost your purpose commitment, perhaps even start it. That doesn’t necessarily mean going to market with it right now, but actually implementing programs."
In recent years, many have said purpose is no longer a "nice to do," but rather a business imperative. Current global realities not only underscore this, but present a potential watershed moment for true action and change. And brands can – and should – lead the way.
"You don’t want to be a footnote in history," said Santos. "You want to be where people most need and expect you to be."
Rewatch the discussion in full below: