Thought Leadership

A Masterclass in post-pandemic purpose

In a wide-ranging conversation experts in purpose discuss the implications of living and working through one of the most unprecedented periods in history

Georgie Moreton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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The role of community and purpose in business is at the top of the agenda in the wake of the pandemic. Far from reaching ‘peak purpose’, the marketing industry is only getting started when it comes to embracing a new era of kindness, empathy and community in business.

In a wide-ranging conversation Sarah Gillard, Mission Director at the John Lewis Partnership, and Becky Willan, CEO and Founder of Given, the agency for purpose-driven brands, spoke with Nicola Kemp, Editorial Director at Creativebrief to discuss the implications of living and working through one of the most unprecedented periods in history.

A renewed sense of community

The pandemic has offered up a once in a generation chance to reevaluate and reassess the way in which brands operate. The unprecedented set of circumstances have shifted consumer attitudes dramatically and impacted every single business across the world. John Lewis for example was founded as a business that was purposeful but that the pandemic changed and heightened that focus, explains Gillard. Sharing how the pandemic shifted the role of Waitrose stores, in particular, she explained: “the early days of the pandemic brought into focus the role our stores play in communities.” explained Gillard.

In this uniquely challenging environment, Waitrose became more visible as an essential part of the community, helping people purchase food in the wake of lockdown. The business put in place measures such as protected slots for vulnerable customers online and increased digital shelf space to keep things running smoothly. Management were able to recognise the invaluable role that stores play in people's lives and backed that recognition with investment at a local level. According to Gillard the stores: “gave £1m to brand managers to spend on whatever they saw fit within their communities as opposed to having a central head office to dictate spend” Unlike in any other time before, a localised approach became essential as the nation looked to their local communities for support. Elsewhere in the business, John Lewis stores were forced to shut and so the community support came in the form of providing joy, entertainment and escapism via online cooking classes, online nursery advisors and other new propositions to help.

Our lives became bigger as we were a part of a huge global phenomenon and could see more clearly the inequalities in our system that Covid exposed. At the same time our lives became infinitely smaller as we were stuck at home, growing closer to our neighbours and communities

Becky Willan, CEO and Founder of Given

A global reset moment

The pandemic saw businesses across the world adapt and change their propositions, asking, “what do people need and how are we well equipped to solve that need” to help their customers through a time of crisis, says Gillard. This has changed the role of business in society long term. Now, people have seen how businesses are able to make a significant difference and are expecting more. Businesses that continue to operate in a purposeful way post-pandemic are the ones that will thrive the most. 


During the pandemic, “our lives became bigger as we were a part of a huge global phenomenon and could see more clearly the inequalities in our system that Covid exposed. At the same time our lives became infinitely smaller as we were stuck at home, growing closer to our neighbours and communities.” says Willan. Decisions came to hold more meaning and tolerance for things not meeting the mark became lowered. Once people were able to see how easily businesses can make a difference, the idea that businesses should do good has become embedded. Time has given people the chance to reflect and think about what they expect from the businesses they spend with, holding their own employers accountable too. Now customers seem to be more careful where they spend, staying true to their values and voice.

Examples and stories are really important [to inspire the shift toward a more purposeful future]. The more we hear of successful, big businesses and respective leaders talk about the role that purpose plays to their organisations, the more confident and courageous others will become.

Sarah Gillard, Mission Director at the John Lewis Partnership

Purpose from within

Willan thinks that this shift to a more purposeful post-pandemic future is coming not only from consumers but from business leaders as well. Senior leaders have also had this time to reflect and are bringing their interest in real-world issues into the workplace. ‘The Great Resignation’ has seen people reconsider their current employment and during the pandemic period of self-reflection, seen people move workplaces to fulfil a more meaningful role.  

“80% of Gen Z are considering purpose over pay when it comes to deciding where to work,” says Gillard, “but it’s not just Gen Z or millennials, the pandemic has made everybody question aspects of their lives they might otherwise have accepted without question.” People want to feel happy, fulfilled and proud that their role is making a positive impact or else making them feel good. For employers of the future, these requirements need to be considered to cater for the next generation workforce. A more purposeful business will see greater investment, fueling an organisation and attracting the best talent.

Purpose cannot just be a marketing strategy, it has to be a management philosophy. We have to see it about transformation, rather than an aspirational mantra that makes everyone feel good while they carry on doing the exact same thing as before.

Becky Willan, CEO and Founder of Given

“Purpose cannot just be a marketing strategy, it has to be a management philosophy,” says Willan. The issue of greenwashing has been well documented in recent times, proving that expectation needs to be coupled with action to satisfy everyone involved. “We have to see it about transformation, rather than an aspirational mantra that makes everyone feel good while they carry on doing the exact same thing as before.” Willan explains that “fundamentally we need new models of capitalism that serve the interest of society and not just shareholders.” It seems like a big ask but it's what's needed to empower people to make sustainable decisions. She calls for a ‘radical transparency’ when it comes to businesses and their actions. Upskilling workers and creating a society in which purposeful businesses thrive is at the very heart of this. 

To embrace a sustainable future and tackle issues of inequality, Willan calls for an inclusive approach. She explains that “ultimately we have to innovate entirely new business models that bake in fairer, more equitable, inclusive, circular and even regenerative solutions.” It's a dramatic shift, but essential to a meaningful change. Kemp raises the fact that the pandemic has seen the likes of gender pay-gap reporting put on hold, reminding the panel that progress is not always linear but needs to be continually pushed forward.

Yes, there’s often a difference between people's desires to live more consciously and sustainably and how that actually translates into their purchasing behaviour but businesses clearly don’t make it easy for people to make those decisions. The burden of responsibility lies with them

Becky Willan, CEO and Founder of Given

Digital joy

Post-pandemic, consumers are returning to stores with a renewed sense of excitement and joy having been deprived of shared experiences for so long. Yet, the digital space has also proved to be both useful and a continued source of joy for many. The online experience has been able to streamline once tedious shopping experiences and connect people via virtual classes or experiences, bringing joy into the living room. 

Gillard explains that John Lewis has been able to train partners in presentation skills who then present online and reach thousands of people. She reasons that where “Previously their audience might have been a few dozen customers on the shop floor, they are now Instagram presenters. Some people have found real confidence and have a talent they never knew about; that's what brings the human element to digital experiences.” Personality, emotion and connection are key ingredients to an engaging online experience which in the past has tended to be more functional. Going forward there is a real opportunity to layer the innovation of the online experience with the excitement and connection of the in-person one in the form of hybrid events.

It takes courage to do things differently and to put purpose on an equal footing with profit.

Nicola Kemp, Editorial Director, Creativebrief

Conscious consumers

“For a long time, a lot of people in business have used the so-called ‘attitude-behaviour gap’ actually as an excuse for not investing in more sustainable approaches to running their businesses,” explains Willan. “Yes, there’s often a difference between people's desires to live more consciously and sustainably and how that actually translates into their purchasing behaviour but businesses clearly don’t make it easy for people to make those decisions. The burden of responsibility lies with them.” If brands were to make more sustainable options for customers, they would be enabled to shop this way. Making sustainable options both available and more appealing will see this attitude-behaviour gap close. 

“It takes courage to do things differently and to put purpose on an equal footing with profit,” says Kemp. Whilst many businesses have been founded with purpose at the heart, there are many that haven’t. Purpose and profit were once seen as opposing forces and it's only in recent times that this narrative has shifted. As a result, businesses are going to have to shift their thinking to match. “Examples and stories are really important” to inspire this shift, says Gillard, “the more we hear of successful, big businesses and respective leaders talk about the role that purpose plays to their organisations, the more confident and courageous others will become.”

The shift toward a more purposeful approach to business is going to be essential to success going forward. The pace of change is rapid and people need to act now, particularly around climate issues which are at the forefront of the next generation’s concerns. The most successful businesses of the future are the ones that operate with purpose at the heart; these are the businesses that will attract talent, investment and customers making the most meaningful impact whilst thriving in the post-pandemic society. 

To watch the discussion click here.

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