Various pictures of pies organized in a repeating pattern on black background

The Essential Need For a Brand With a Purpose



Spring 2020


  • Sara Grossman, Strategist

“People just don’t need apple pie right now,” an executive of a Midwestern pie company said to me this past week. Sales had been steadily declining ever since the COVID-19 crisis hit. 

Even before the U.S. went into lockdown, you probably noticed an immediate difference in consumer behavior: Purell and Lysol products were suddenly on backorder for weeks. Toilet paper was sold out, too – a product without true tie to hygiene, though with an apparent relation to quarantine. Certain brands surged while others crashed.

You also may have noticed several brands trying to keep in touch with their customers via email, using the crisis as a talking point, hoping for anyone to bite the bait while preparing for the worst. Some offered a point of view on the crisis, while others merely informed their customers that they were aware there was one. As COVID-19 progressed, brands took further steps to assure their customers of how their businesses were addressing COVID-19, or what they were doing to help.  

“People just don’t need apple pie right now.”

How many of these communications genuinely helped you or provided unique information? How many of them really reflected who you felt that brand was?

Every communication a brand puts out into the world has subtext – a deeper meaning, a call to action. Brands bank on consumers being able to read a witty or thought-provoking message and understand a deeper meaning. So why would communications during a crisis be any different? A consumer can feel your belief in yourself (or lack thereof) in how you communicate.

Maybe you could tell the difference between brands who think of themselves as essential to your life and those who feel, deep down, they’re not. Interestingly enough, even brands who don’t feel essential may in fact be considered essential by their customers.

Interestingly enough, even brands who don’t feel essential may in fact be considered essential by their customers.

Take Nike, for example. Is Nike afraid that no one is going to buy athletic gear right now? Or do they see how essential they are to their customers – that their customers could use them at a time like this? The latter. 

Nike recently put out an ad, which to its customers felt like showing up, being there for its people in a time of crisis. “If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside. Play for the world.” (Perhaps a different athletic brand’s communications could feel like a desperate attempt at sales while we’re locked indoors).  Why did it work for Nike? Because Nike’s brand purpose is to empower people. But let’s not forget that Nike has put in the work over thousands of previous communications for this messaging to come out as consistent and authentic. An ad that works in a time of crisis is merely collecting on all the brand equity that was built before the crisis. 

An ad that works in a time of crisis is merely collecting on all the brand equity that was built before the crisis.

But it doesn’t take a brand on the scale of Nike to get it right. A gay bar in Chicago sent an email to its patrons that resonated deeply. “We have always been a gathering place and a safe haven for our community. It pains us not to be there for you during this crisis.” Any other bar might come off as self-serving. But, the purpose of this bar’s brand was the richer subtext in the communication, to provide community and safety for its patrons. Loud and clear.

Let’s take our apple pie example. Pie is no more essential to our lives during a crisis than the newest pair of Jordans. Do you think people stopped eating dessert just because they were locked inside? I certainly didn’t become a better person with any fewer sugar cravings just because the world was out of usual order. If pie had been my go-to before COVID-19, you better believe I’d be making a pie order during COVID-19. (I did in fact, place an apple pie order to support this friend. It’s quite a comforting food to eat during a time of crisis). 

The story goes that in WWII, some women, rather than kissing their old ways goodbye and reprogramming themselves for survival mode, painted seams onto their legs to look as though they were wearing stockings. It begs one obvious question to us at Butchershop: did stocking companies understand to what extent they were selling humanity

Brands: find your purpose. Your loyal customers might even already know what it is. If you’re not sure, let’s ask them together. No matter the crisis, true character by way of brand will always shine through.