Now, more than ever, in these difficult times, we are all in this together. In such uncertain times, we have to reset normal, be well, and now, more than ever, find a new normal. Because now, more than ever, we must stay strong and stay safe in what are (in case you missed it) unprecedented times. We’re here for you.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been drowning in cliché: soundbites that may have started with sincerity but seem less so every time you hear them, especially when they’re espoused by billionaire CEOs or massive multinationals. All trying to show they have heart, soul, and that most ethereal, most zeitgeist of brand essentials… a PURPOSE.
My colleague, collaborator and [dare I say it?] bloody good chum and all round top chap [ooh that was a little more than expected!] Mr Oliver Caporn wrote a blog recently (which you can find here – he’s very good) about how every single piece of consumer advertising is following the same exact formula (check out the film that proves this point here) and how actually, in searching for a way to show “purpose” when no one wants ads that say “buy more stuff”, consumer brands have actually ended up looking and sounding a lot like brands in healthcare used to look and sound (before they got a bit more sophisticated and less samey).
Working in healthcare marketing, as Olly and I do, the ‘purpose’ bit is a lot more simple as you might imagine, even in these difficult times. Our clients make things that, one way or another, are designed to help people. Whether that’s by developing drugs that actually save or prolong or otherwise change the lives of patients, or by creating cutting edge materials, products and services that enable laboratories to do some good science [did I ever mention I don’t have a science background?] they’re all there to do good, to help, to improve lives.
[I’m not going to deep into the “big pharma” argument here, but just to cover it off quickly: I’ve worked for the pharmaceutical industry in some capacity for the last 20-odd years and the vast, vast majority of people I’ve met have been genuinely committed to improving the lives of patients, not the bank balances of investors. I’m sure there are exceptions, and I’m sure some companies are better than others, and I know some mistakes have been made over the years… but I get a little tired of the negative press that pharma always, always fail to effectively counter. If you want to slag someone off, try cigarette or weapons manufacturers. Or Über of course – if you’re not sure why, listen to this podcast.]
So from a brand perspective, I think we probably know a good deal more about what purpose is all about, and how to talk about very general positive intentions without getting quite so generic and seeming so self-serving.
Which, of course, is precisely where the big consumer brands end up. Because as much as they want to be authentic, and say something nice, no one really gives a fuck if “Big Multinational Brand X have been here for you for X number of years and are still here for you, now more than ever, in these trying times”.
It’s self-serving because it’s just a desperate attempt to say something, to stay relevant when you’re just not.
“But we’re Nike – we need to have a POV about these unprecedented times”.
No. No, you don’t.
No one is buying new trainers, because we’re trying to survive a global pandemic. [Even me. And I bloody love trainers.]
And trust me, now, more than ever, no one is looking to huge multinational corporations for moral support.
But the desire to be relevant? That I do get. Because there’s no question that being an inclusive, emotional business leader in these crazy times is really, really weird.
How can you lead people anywhere if you don’t see them? Do people even really need leadership if that leader can’t really do anything practical to make things different or better? A leader can’t home school your kids, or sort your wi-fi, or get you to see your parents.
So what’s the purpose of leadership in these difficult times?
Well, it starts with showing the desire to double down on the things that can actually carry an organisation through such unprecedented times – intangible, uncountable and often overlooked things like shared values, belonging, togetherness.
Sometimes all this stuff gets called the “soft measures”. And it’s true, none of these pay the bills on their own. But when we come out of the far end of this [and rest assured, this too shall pass] trust me when I say that it’ll be the organisations with a clear sense of collective strength that do the best.
And the leaders who can come out of this into a new normal with the emotional integrity of the group perhaps even stronger than when they went in? Well, that would be something special.
With that aim in mind, it becomes crucial to really embrace the juxtapositions that are inherent in the concept of emotional leadership. To show resilience alongside vulnerability. To balance total honesty with credible optimism and hope. To be the cheerleader and the counsellor. To pull people together, and to push them on.
And, to do all that with an openness, transparency and authenticity that’s so obvious that it doesn’t matter if a couple of clichés get dropped in now and then because there’s purpose behind them.
None of this is about being in an office. It’s about enabling and then truly being part of something that doesn’t have to have a physical home, a neural network of people disparate in geography but united in their determination and connected by their values.
Soft measures my arse – these things are as solid as the big, brash, barren buildings we once made our way to every day.
People don’t need leadership per se, they need genuine, honest connections with other people. The leader is just there to help make that a possibility, a shared passion and a collective aim, and then get out of the way and let things happen.
That’s leadership with purpose, and that’s relevant not just in these unprecedented times, but always. The constant drive to be building something that doesn’t just exist in a building.
Hmm, that’s kind of catchy. Perhaps I might do an ad myself. I’m sure Nike are waiting to hear that now, more than ever, I’m here for them.
[Take care. Be safe. Stay inside. Stop touching your face.]