In August – what feels like a decade ago – 181 CEOs committed to redefine the purpose of a corporation. They pledged to “lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.”
At the time, this statement represented an important inflection point. Now, it is a business imperative. And corporate America seems to agree. Fortune’s Alan Murray asked the CEOs of the top 500 companies in April if the pandemic would either accelerate, slow or have no impact on the move towards stakeholder capitalism. In a preview of the full results, Alan wrote, “Almost half chose the first option, while just 18% chose the second. I hope they are right. The future of capitalism hangs in the balance.”
A few financial services firms and figureheads have taken the lead. Jamie Dimon is laying the foundation for JPMorgan Chase to be a steward of a more inclusive economy, while Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio pledged $100 million to under-privileged Connecticut students and schools in April.
One caution: Rushing to the marketplace with purpose-led marketing or media relations can be a perilous highwire act where brands can appear to be self-serving, ambulance chasing or off the mark.
There are positive trends we can identify to understand how to engage with clients and prospects in a more meaningful way for both the brand and bottom line. The good news is the basic tenets of successful communications have not changed - define your story, articulate how it matters to each audience, and choose the right channels to disseminate your message.
What has changed is a shift in priority of the type of stories companies want to tell – and audiences want to hear. There is a renewed recognition of the importance of customer-centric, empathic messaging and digital strategies being used as a powerful engagement tool – not for mere amplification of owned and earned assets.
Combine product and purpose
Brands that lead with purpose messaging have seen higher interaction with their content. LinkedIn performed an analysis of engagement with company posts in March and found “the coronavirus posts that got the most engagement were about how those companies were stepping up to help relief efforts, in ways big and small.”
The challenge, now, is how companies can navigate the “new normal” – whatever and whenever that may be – and drive customer engagement to core products and services. The answer lies within aligning your firm’s “product” with its “purpose” in a more meaningful and lasting way.
Take asset management firms rushing to the opportunity offered by increased demand in ESG-related investment products. Traditional marketing and communications practice dictates developing well-researched and back-tested results showing the outperformance of ESG strategies against peer funds, or dedicated microsites explaining a company’s ESG investment conviction and commitment.
These are important, but can be reinforced by complementary initiatives that affirm the firms’ own commitment to the cause. Partnering with local non-profits focused on driving socio-economic benefits throughout the community, with a focus on sustainability, is one way asset managers can differentiate themselves from their peers and create purpose-led stories to showcase their brand.
The increase in demand for ESG investment dollars is conversely pushing corporates to transform their business practices to score higher on the environmental, social and governance ratings they expect to be increasingly scrutinized over. Gillian Tett, editor of Moral Money at The Financial Times, has written on companies who are using this period to realign their business values. She’s profiling firms figuring out "how to build back better, in the sense of creating a more sustainable world and corporate sector alike."
Lead with human-centric messaging
Empathy matters. Content marketer Ann Handley wrote in Everybody Writes that “empathy means you relentlessly focus on your customer. You view the entire world through his or her eyes.” It’s not new, and it can be overdone – some brands have decided to only sell empathy during this period – but it is essential.
Traditionally this has been a challenge for companies operating in niche and complex markets. We understand how difficult it can be to humanize topics like the multi-asset risk management portfolio analytics dashboard, diversified income fund or blockchain-enabled bond origination platform. (See what we did there?)
Too often, marketers are paralyzed by defining the features of their product - touting how your widget is faster, provides deeper insights, and creates more efficient processes. That only connects with buyers on the brink of purchase.
Examine your messaging and content strategy and ask: Am I leading with a deep understanding and empathetic of the challenges my buyer and their organization are facing? If so, how are you articulating how your product or service may benefit their actual needs and challenges in the current environment? Oftentimes this means not leading with an answer, but rather asking questions to your key constituencies to showcase empathy. How can we best help you? What are the biggest sources of frustration in your role?
There is now more than ever an opportunity to infuse product and purpose messaging in a way that connects with and reinforces buyers’ values and belief system. When done right, brand content should showcase understanding, empathy and make your buyer proud to partner your company with their organization.
Leverage digital to engage, not amplify
Look how celebrities, athletes and entertainers have pivoted engagement strategies. No longer able to hold a concert, compete on the court or release a blockbuster film, influencers have instead flocked to live, online platforms like Instagram to connect in a more meaningful and informal way with smaller audiences.
For B2B marketers, this sounds eerily similar to the missed networking at the countless industry conferences cancelled in 2020. Innovative B2B companies, such as corporate interior design and architecture firm Spectorgroup, have taken to using Instagram Live, Zoom and other video conferencing platforms to connect with their audience to simply to discuss shared experiences during the crisis. While they might not be reaching the same audience as a webinar or physical conference, the unique personal and informal engagement connects brands with their audiences in a more transparent and authentic way.
The power of digital platforms during the Covid period has been well documented – and rightfully so. Digital channels have become engagement, lead generation and acquisition tools and need to drive any marketers’ revenue growth strategies. No longer secondary touchpoints for content amplification – they can offer deep and meaningful engagement into and throughout the traditional sales funnel.
Ultimately, the fallout may be a subtle, yet important, shift in what, why and how we communicate. Companies have a tremendous opportunity to reassess their brand, purpose and communication. While every company will chart a different path, one point above all else is true – those that do not take this opportunity to reassess and evolve may not be granted the opportunity again.