To say 2020 has been challenging is perhaps the understatement of the year. As organizations looked with optimism at the start of a new decade, those hopes were dashed by March as COVID-19 brought the global economy to a halt. While shutdowns took hold, and the uncertainty of the pandemic’s impact grew, the economic outlook grew bleaker near the middle of the year as companies of all sizes faced agonizing decisions to cut costs and reduce staff. Additionally, businesses had to navigate the workplace implications of the national conversation on racial justice against the backdrop of an election year in an increasingly divided country.   

While these issues can be difficult to authentically address, consumers expect brands to not just speak out on them but to act, too. In fact, 64 percent believe brands, rather than governments, are primarily responsible for driving social change. But how can organizations rise to the moment and make an impact, given the onslaught of challenges they face? One simple, but powerful, way to steady the ship through rough seas and unite employees is to reaffirm your brand purpose, and let it serve as the guide to help propel through difficult times.

Your reason to exist

So, what is your brand purpose? Simply put, it is why your organization exists. That “reason for being” is an important accelerator when it comes to employee engagement--which is critical in times of crisis. According to data from nearly 40 different industries, 73 percent of employees who work at a “purpose-driven” company reported that they are engaged, meaning that they’re involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace, compared to only 23 percent of those who don’t. But does purpose have an impact on the bottom line? You bet. Data from Harvard Business Review shows that purpose-led companies outperform the market by 5-7 percent, grow faster, and have higher profitability.

Innovation fueled by purpose

Leading with purpose can also drive innovation, helping organizations better prepare for changing market conditions and stand out from the competition. Focused on its purpose to serve those who have served, USAA provides insurance, banking, investments, and retirement products to more than 13 million members, all current and former service members and their families.  Nearly 30 percent of the company’s 35,000 employees are veterans or military spouses or partners, which provides a unique point of view on developing services that matter to their members.

Given its members are often more mobile than civilians, USAA leans heavily into its purpose for inspired innovation. In response to military members and their families in remote locations needing to make bank deposits, USAA pioneered mobile remote deposit capture through a smartphone. The technology is now a banking standard that is especially valuable to veterans and civilians alike. USAA continues to advance the possibilities of online banking for its members, powered by its purpose. 

Purpose in action during COVID-19

Eye care and eyewear leader VSP Global has been living and breathing its purpose of empowering human potential through sight since 1955. One of the clearest examples of their purpose in action is VSP Eyes of Hope, which brings access to no-cost eye care and glasses to those in need. Nearly 9,000 eye doctors on VSP’s network have participated in the program, which has helped 3 million people and counting gain access to free vision care.

But like all organizations, 2020 was not business as usual for VSP. As the pandemic set in, the only not-for-profit vision benefits company in the U.S. took quick action to respond to rapidly changing market conditions for its nearly 90 million members and 40,000 network doctors. The company’s purpose served as a central filter to guide the decisions it faced throughout the year.  

“Having access to vision care and glasses, should you need them, is critical to achieve all you can in life,” said VSP Global Chief Marketing Officer Wendy Hauteman. “To wake up each morning and play a part in making that possible is incredibly motivating, even in the face of a crisis like COVID-19. Although this year presented many challenges, our purpose guided us in supporting the communities we serve in new, authentic, and meaningful ways.”

While routine eye care had been deemed non-essential in the pandemic’s early stages, VSP recognized that its members still faced situations where they needed care for changes in vision, pink eye, and eye trauma. To ensure they could get that care, VSP expanded access to essential medical eye care. The move also helped keep members connected to their eye doctors and reduced the chances that members would seek care at emergency rooms or hospitals, which were already strained due to COVID-19.

“In one case, a member noticed her 7-year-old daughter could not stop rubbing her eye, which had an unusual dot near her cornea,” said Hauteman. “Instead of worrying about a trip to the ER, she was able to receive care from their local VSP network doctor, who safely removed a speck of metal from her daughter’s eye.”

To support network doctors providing care during the pandemic, the company leveraged its alternative manufacturing capabilities to design, construct, and distribute protective face shields free of charge. Additionally, the company established a program to provide grants to doctors in order to help them offset pandemic-related expenses and financial hardships.

There are countless other examples of purpose-driven brands taking similar action throughout the COVID-19 crisis. In response to the pandemic, Lyft launched Essential Deliveries, a new pilot initiative to help government agencies, nonprofits, health care organizations, and other essential businesses request on-demand delivery of medical supplies, meals, and other supplies. Not only did this help ensure timely deliveries to those in need, it provided a new way for Lyft drivers to earn additional income while supporting their communities.

Purpose as the bedrock of strategy

To have a greater impact on the world while also growing your business, purpose can’t be a bolt-on. It must be central to your strategy. As organizations face increasingly complex and interconnected crises at breakneck speed, there is no substitute for sustained commitment to your purpose to drive positive change and boost growth.

Your organization’s purpose allows you to answer core questions that today’s consumers care about: Why are you in this business? What value do you bring? What is your purpose beyond profit? How are you helping tackle the issues facing society today? In times of crisis or calm, purpose at the center of your strategy will ensure you’re staying relevant to the era and open new opportunities for growth and impact.