In recent weeks, we’ve been in close touch with clients and other marketing leaders as they’ve been navigating this new world. We wanted to understand and capture the lessons they’ve learned, so others might benefit.

What we’re seeing has inspired us.

The global crisis continues to devastate millions of organizations, employees and communities. Yet amid the crisis, we see a silver lining. For this is proving to be a time of incredible bravery, transformation and creativity. We have been inspired by how leaders of organizations—including many of the clients we talk to every day—are taking actions that redefine the value they can create.

These leaders have reimagined global business models, upended their markets, overhauled strategies, launched new products and staged massive redeployments of budgets and skilled workforces. Along the way, they’ve created real, lasting social impact: protecting the well-being of employees, channeling goods and services to healthcare workers and creating the infrastructure needed to fight COVID-19. These extreme acts of creativity and resilience are showing us all what they really stand for.

None of these initiatives were planned. These innovations would’ve never made the 2020 strategic agenda. Many would have been regarded as fantastical.

Yet here these companies are, making the remarkable seem simple.

How did we arrive at this unexpected place? How are some companies knocking it out of the park amid massive uncertainty? What’s the common thread?

One thing stands at the center: purpose.

The true value of purpose has become more apparent than ever in this COVID-19 crisis: It is a tool that makes the impossible simple. Purpose inspires strategies that benefit people and business simultaneously. Purpose helps deliver both utility and delight. Purpose offers clear direction, regardless of where the seas may toss the ship.

What we’re seeing is that the truly great CMOs and leaders are using purpose to say “yes and”—to deliver value for their business while creating impact for the people who rely on it.

From the C-suite to the frontline, across each sector, acting with purpose has begun to separate leaders from also-rans.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the CMOs and marketing leaders we advise have often been at the heart of the matter. This dynamic new breed of marketer stays close to its customers and communities. They have both the data and deep relationships needed to help shape powerful stories and find signals in the noise.

For them, purpose is a steadfast guide and a source of inspiration. These leaders are seeing purpose as a call to do more with less, as a tool to pivot quickly and blend empathy with science for authentic, impactful action.
So, what attitudes and capabilities are at the heart of their success? What fuels their ability to create silver linings in a time of crisis?

Here are the four practices these leaders have:

1. Commit to contributing

Leaders who have turned crisis into the impetus for innovation and social impact are asking themselves, “when we look back at this time, will we be able to say, ‘Yes, we did all we could”?”

Business results are indispensable, but during a massive shock to business-as-usual, we’re seeing something matters just as much—doing what’s right, every time. Call it creative confidence: These leaders believe there’s always a way to succeed and give.

  • CVS’s purpose is to help people on the path to better health. In response to the dire need for increased testing, they committed to the incredibly tough challenge of equipping retail locations for drive-through testing. Said Norm de Greve, their CMO, “It’s going to be easy to focus on ROI-driven things, but purpose is what will be more memorable over this period than having a high efficiency of ROI.”
  • Chobani aspires to provide better food to more people. In response to the pandemic, their leadership began daily national donations of products to food banks across the USA and converted their own café spaces into pantries. Peter McGuiness, their chairman, said simply, “How you behave in a crisis is really important. We don’t want to be one of those companies that takes. We want to give.”

These companies’ contributions aren’t tied to immediate metrics and revenue. But their leaders understand that success—in the form of relationships, reputation and long-term vision—are critical. They are examples of a pattern: The companies who are thriving right now—with visionary leadership, empowered employees and adaptive operations—have all shown a commitment to contributing from day one.

2. Start at the end

This set of leaders goes beyond “knowing what to do.” These leaders imagine future states, then work backward to build what’s needed to achieve them. With real outcomes in mind, they dramatically realign their capabilities to solve problems and deliver on their purpose.

The number one input needed for this type of visioning: purpose. Without a simple, relevant and authentic purpose, it’s difficult to clarify and align on the desired end-state required for this type of work.

  • SAP’s purpose is to help the world run better. As the health and economic crisis worsened, it became clear to SAP’s leaders that their enterprise-level products and services could help millions of businesses to keep running, and run better. So, SAP made these tools available—for free. “During any crisis,” said Alicia Tillman, SAP’s CMO, “it becomes really a test of the strength of your brand, and how well your brand understands what most matters to people right now.”
  • Allbirds is a sustainability-driven B-corp obsessed with comfort. Recognizing that healthcare workers were on their feet for exhausting shifts, Allbirds moved quickly to give away $500,000 worth of shoes. They envisioned a front line who could feel a little more comfortable at the end of the day. When it became apparent the demand for their donated shoes was compromising the needs of their employees, they came up with a new plan. Now for every pair purchased, they’d split the cost of donating a pair. Knowing exactly the kind of impact they wanted to create, Allbirds would not be deflected from their end-goal. They just changed the means of getting there.

3. Collaborate to overcome

The leaders making waves in recent months share another common belief: They know COVID-19 is the common enemy. It’s a competitor that no one can beat alone, and so these leaders are rethinking competition at its very core.

Some of the most inspiring responses to this crisis have come in the form of collaborations—partnerships where leaders have rallied others to accomplish something they couldn’t do alone.

  • General Motors and Ventec joined forces in March to mass-produce ventilators for an overtaxed healthcare system. GM has always been about innovation, and in this time of need, they and their supply chain partners rose to the challenge. They all came together as equals with Ventec, despite their differences in scale and expertise, to massively ramp up production. GM explained that “We joined the fight against the coronavirus because it’s the right thing to do. And because we believe our talent and ingenuity can help the world win this fight.” / alt GM head Mary Barra “We are proud to stand with other American companies and our skilled employees to meet the needs of this global pandemic.”
  • American Express is committed to providing “powerful backing to thrive”. They were quick to recognize that the pandemic presents an existential threat to small businesses. In response Amex formed Stand for Small, a coalition of partners includes some of Amex’s fiercest rivals. United by a common interest, these huge brands are making their services more affordable and accessible to small businesses and alleviating the burden proprietors face. “We’ve always believed in the power of partnership,” said Stephen Squeri, Chairman and CEO of American Express, “and could not be prouder to stand tall for small with more than 40 partners.”

4. Simple works wonders

Perhaps most importantly, the companies finding success and helping keep communities safe through this storm have done so by formulating simple strategies that can be simply executed. These companies’ decisions are guided by authentic purpose. The programs they’re building prioritize what’s essential and elemental—not necessarily aiming for maximum returns or strategic efficiency. The marketing leaders at these companies understand what their organizations are fundamentally about, and what customers and communities care about. Guided by purpose, their decisions are made simple.

These brands have accomplished feats of innovation and impact that have inspired us. They’ve shown us how essential purpose is for leading through times of uncertainty.

And beyond that, they’ve laid the groundwork for a future that looks bright. They’ve taught us a lesson about purpose; about how it can be a tool for simplifying. For silencing the chaos, seeing where you’re headed, and just plain getting there.

As we move forward, we’re inviting others to think about their purpose: Is it serving your organization by helping you identify the authentic, human priorities at the heart of your brand? By helping your leaders envision real, meaningful outcomes? To build a bridge between business success and impact?

When purpose helps your organization harness these mindsets and capabilities, it takes on more significance. It becomes a powerful tool for our organizations.

And it shows that pulling off the remarkable can be simpler than it looks.