1 Feb 2021

The vaccine doesn't signal a return to business as usual

Brands need to embrace the change and continue on this new path of accountability, writes Ross Clugston, Executive Creative Director, New York.

Image credit: Misan Harriman

Vaccines are like buses. You wait eight months and then two come along at once. Pfizer first announced a vaccine with a 90% success rate and the following week, Moderna went one better with 95%. All in all a more positive picture being painted in the pharmaceuticals world to cap off what was undeniably a rough year. 

For businesses, 2020 was the year of unpredictability, going remote and adapting to behaviour change en masse. But with the vaccine announcements causing many to herald the return to "normality" (read as life before the pandemic), will businesses be following suit? 

I would argue not. Consumer behaviour and - more importantly - expectations, have been altered irrevocably and the standard to which audiences now hold businesses cannot be reversed. Not only was 2020 the year of COVID-19, but it was also the year of Black Lives Matter, global climate change protests and widespread calls for politicians, celebrities and businesses to do better - capped off with the rejection of Donald Trump in November. All in all, a perfect microcosm for permanent change. 

In 2020 the business world has had to reckon with the fact that shareholder value has truly been eclipsed by stakeholder value. Consumers are increasingly making values-led decisions about the products that they buy. And not only are businesses being held to a higher standard externally, but they are internally too. Employees want to be proud of who they work for and aren't afraid to hold their employers to account in both private and public - as we've seen with the rise of whistleblowers globally. 

Accompanying this shift is a new expectation of transparency - from supply chain to delivery. Opaque business decisions are leading audiences to assume they are not being made in the right way and many will subsequently avoid a brand as a result. This demand for accountability is not something we will see lessen with a vaccine. 

We have seen this reckoning reflected in the business decisions that have been made in 2020 - big brands have had to re-evaluate their positioning and what they stand for. From Uncle Ben's to Aunt Jemima, brands have faced up to the racial stereotypes they were built on and reviewed how their business values and products fit within a changing cultural narrative. 

But this goes beyond business positions on race - it encompasses a shift of perspectives on all important global issues, many of which are interconnected. For instance, sustainability finds itself similarly at the top of the agenda. Brands like Unilever are leading the charge by setting targets of net-zero emission by 2039 and vowing to invest €1bn in green projects. Even the auto industry, not famously associated with sustainability, is getting involved - with the likes of Bentley committing to becoming carbon neutral by 2030 and Ford aiming the same for 2050. 

Holding all of these pledges together is one thing: purpose. In 2020 if your business did not have a clear purpose it really showed. In no other year has a brand's purpose been such a guiding light to navigating unpredictable twists and turns. Brand purpose is the road map to entering any conversation confidently and safely. It is a stake in the ground from which all other action can be built upon. Companies can - and have been - combining this purpose with their size and scale to affect real change by holding governments to account, treating people better or taking a stand on important issues. And now that Pandora is out of the box, she won't go back in without a fight. 

As the buzz around vaccines and a return to normal continues to grow, companies should instead embrace the change and continue on the new path to accountability and change for the better. It is those that fight the current and ignore the need to stand for something, no matter how big or small, that will fall ill to this positive change. 

First published in Business Vision Magazine