COVID-19 elevates the social impact of every business and throws a spotlight on the nature of our companies, our character and our brand(s).

Questions that will be commonplace as we move into this decade will be focused around issues of human and business resilience and their intersection with purpose: Why does your company exist? How does it contribute to societal, economic and environmental progress? Is your supply chain both secure and ethical? How is the "contract" between business and society changing, and where is COVID-19 accelerating that change?

How can my company use insights from the answers to these questions to outmaneuver uncertainty and emerge stronger?

This is your test day. Not only do CEOs now need to draw on everything they’ve learned to deal with a world in pandemic and its aftermath, they need to learn new skills from lessons never before taught. How businesses and leaders respond is a central part of the story playing out in front of us.

The big reset

Everyone is going through a reset. While some changes may be temporary, this reset is likely to alter what it means to be part of a society and community. Some things will never be the same again: the new normal will be "never normal".

Leaders must concentrate their attention on four themes at the intersection of social impact and brand—right now, next and in the "never normal."

Purpose, accelerated

Purpose was already rising in importance. Now it matters more than ever. The pandemic is testing our humanity and values. COVID-19 has given us all a common purpose and thereby elevated the very idea of a company’s "purpose."

The Maslow uncertainty

Self-actualization has given way to basic needs, and CEOs must pay close attention to, and act upon, the needs of employees and customers in real-time.

What’s healthy for me becomes healthy for we

When we re-emerge, we can expect to see patterns of consumption and purpose very different from those we saw before. We are increasingly expected to make "right" choices about what we buy or do, and we will increasingly be criticized if we don’t.

Brand. New.

A key lesson of the crisis, not lost on employees and consumers, is that we can change things really fast when we want to. Just look at how many companies have pivoted assets, capabilities and priorities to innovate and contribute.

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Crises drive innovation

During the pandemic, both citizens and governments are turning to the private sector. A recent report from Edelman, confirms that governments are seen as far more effective in combating the virus when they partner with business. Indeed, the same study finds that 62 percent of employees trust their employer to respond effectively and responsibly to the coronavirus outbreak and they also put more faith in information coming from their employer than any other source (such as government agencies, healthcare companies, traditional media or social media). This presents a new responsibility for many CEOs: Serving as the "primary source of truth" for their employees and their families—when lives are at stake. Past generations would have turned to the news or their local governments.

62%

of employees trust their employer to respond effectively and responsibly to the coronavirus outbreak.

47%

of consumers expect brands to translate their values and promises into new and innovative products and services.

That‘s not the case today. These companies and others like them are finding ways to innovate—reminding us all that necessity is (still) the mother of invention. Innovation—where creativity and unmet needs meet—always comes to the fore in times like these. It’s a well-known part of design history that tackling edge cases is where creativity frequently comes up with mass market solutions. Leaders apply it to anticipate the changing patterns in consumption that will stick.

Some innovations will be one-time business choices that reflect the true heart of the company. Others will be lasting commercial choices, unlikely to ever return to normal. The wireless internet service provider that removed all data caps from home internet usage has radically changed market norms.

That, combined with a growing acceptance of a work-from-home culture, might change how/where we work and how we get charged for it.

There will be many long-tail impacts on how companies need to navigate a newly sensitive society, even when the world is in recovery.

Brand. New rules apply

Brands have always sought to be relevant to users but this needs to be turned around. Now the question is: How can brands make people feel relevant in a decade of "never normal"? This applies to both customers and employees. Relevant brands are rooted in human purpose. What is required is a true shift in perspective. A brand’s purpose will only be relevant if it sits within people’s own purpose, and not the other way around. If you’re not sure what direction to head in, your customers and employees will help lead the way.

Navigating this moment of uncertainty is not straightforward; stay grounded in the basics in the days, weeks and months ahead. The following recommendations will set leaders and their organizations up for success.

Get off the wall

Take your organization’s values off the wall and use them for guidance, every day. The rotation to digital is over. The shift to virtual has been accelerated and the new focus will be purpose-led.

Plan ahead for a brand marathon

It’s a sprint now, but it’s time to start preparing for the marathon of never normal as you outmaneuver uncertainty. Test day won’t go away. Wars are won in the general’s tent. Make time to plan for the quarters ahead.

Find metrics that matter

Identify the purpose metrics that matter. Know what you need to do (your North Star) and figure out how to measure it. A corporate vision that cannot be measured, cannot be achieved.

Love your employees

How you treat your employees is highly visible and everyone is watching. Make that your number one concern. It is shaping your brand more than you know.

Listen, observe

Watch the Maslow shift carefully. Listen hard, and focus on human insights. Become an expert in detecting human signals, what they mean for your organization, and how you can respond at speed. This will drive a ferocious era of innovation—if you engage.

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