The Evolution of Purpose Wash and How to Avoid It

More than ever, the longevity of an international brand is tied to its purpose. If purpose is poorly delivered or diluted over time, the business it is meant to serve will suffer.

Becky Willan, co-founder and CEO of brand purpose agency Given, explains the concept of “purpose wash” and how brands can ensure they don’t fall victim to it.

Brand purpose has become a huge topic for most businesses, big and small. But with the seismic shifts we have seen in 2020, which have given momentum to movements for positive change, the idea that business can and must become a force for good is becoming more important than ever. As a consequence, the idea of purpose has risen up the ranks in corporations, and has rapidly become C-suite subject matter.

In the rush to stand for something, some organisations have risked putting the purpose ‘story’ ahead of the purpose plan and actions. And because this is a nascent discipline, the responsibility for creating a purpose has often been given to the wrong team to execute. The result has been that businesses have been called out for ‘purpose wash’ (the 20s equivalent of green washing) and opportunities for businesses to genuinely play a positive role in society have been jeopardised.

Purpose again made headlines for the wrong reasons with the McDonald’s launch of its ‘Mc Plant’ meat-free range. Critics pointed out McDonald’s previous inaction on sustainability issues and the lack of a clear link between the launch of McPlant and its current sustainability plan. There are times when actions of all kinds must be celebrated not critiqued, otherwise the pursuit of perfection in this area can also stifle positive attempts at change. But more fundamentally, how do you avoid purpose wash in the first place?

We need to start by recognising that the work has to start somewhere. While it is critical that purpose-driven brands must look at commitments in the context of their entire operation – there is no point pursuing purpose in one area when others are doing huge amounts of damage – it is critical to give businesses and brands room to innovate and plan for the future. Massive, global brands such as McDonald’s, have legacy systems, supply chains and business models that are the foundations for their whole operation. However, these brands also have the eyes, ears and wallets of billions of consumers globally – McDonald’s sell 75 burgers every second. If they ignore the elephant, or in this case the cow, in the room in their sustainability efforts, they will always be called out.

In the rush to stand for something, some organisations have risked putting the purpose ‘story’ ahead of the purpose plan and actions.

The truth is that most businesses do not set out to purpose wash. There are simply better or worse plans. To deliver effective purpose strategy, there are three things businesses must drive from the top to ensure success.

1. Make purpose a strategy for business management, not business marketing

Purpose is not exclusively a marketing discipline. It’s that simple. The confusion that has been created for business is down to the fact that it is easier to talk about purpose than deliver it. Businesses are full of great stories, and intentions. Therefore, there is a natural tendency to start with the marketing department. However, this is risky. Purpose must first and foremost drive action within an organisation. It must be linked to tangible goals, a plan for change and a shared understanding within the whole company about what is required to create that change. Purpose must become a platform for innovation and a lens through which people make decisions, every day.

In contrast, if purpose is set up as a marketing discipline, it will only drive marketing behaviours. An idea will be created, an ad produced, a strapline strapped. And what will follow will be a public critique of the gap between words and deeds, intent and action. This is classic purpose washing and a great example is Gillette’s 2019 ‘The best a man can be’ campaign. This is not necessarily a bad place for organisations to be seeking to affect positive change – they just shouldn’t start with an ad.

2. Always link your sustainability strategy and your purpose

If the 2000s saw the emergence of the CTO and the 2010s the creation of the CCO (Chief Customer Officer) – then the 20s will be marked by the arrival of the CSO as the new most important voice at the executive table. However, the fact is that purpose is not like other business disciplines. It is much more complicated. Where once businesses had a singular focus – serve the customer and create value for shareholders – now there are multiple stakeholders (NGOs, supply chains, investors)  with a variety of needs to be accounted for and balanced against each other.

If the 2000s saw the emergence of the CTO and the 2010s the creation of the CCO (Chief Customer Officer) – then the 20s will be marked by the arrival of the CSO as the new most important voice at the executive table.

The sophistication of the subject matter is also immense. Businesses are looking at their role in systems, not simply thinking of their product or service. The perspective and influence of an experienced, expert voice on the social and environmental issues that your business can affect is critical. It is also critical to link the work on purpose to your sustainability strategy. It won’t always be the place to go for sexy media stories, but it gives the work real integrity and ultimately creates a stable platform for innovation and then marketing.

In a recent interview to discuss Nike’s new Space Hippie shoe (their lowest-carbon-impact product to date) Nike CSO Noel Kinder said: “It’s not super hard to get excited about product, because it’s so unique … but it’s operational progress that moves the needle.” In the interview, he says that it’s not the shoe — but the packaging strategy, the energy strategy, the promotion and simplification of the sustainability strategy — that are more important.

The example of the McDonald’s meat free burger is interesting. On the face of it, this felt like a bold and credible move, but if you (as many people did) dug into their sustainability strategy, it was clear that this was not part of a bigger agenda to reduce beef consumption and change behaviour. This does not mean launching the burger was a bad thing to do, it just didn’t have the sustainability strategy to back it up.

3. When it comes to saving the world, no business is an island

Customers and investors alike get frustrated with insular approaches to problem solving. If taken seriously, the idea of purpose should redefine markets and bring competitors closer in the common pursuit of goals. This of course is not how the world of business is set up. There is competition, there are winners and losers. And this will always be the case. However, if businesses are serious about change, they are going to have to come together to make it happen.

In a recent panel discussion that I hosted, Julian Lings from The North Face talked about the requirement for collaboration to create real and meaningful change in the fashion and apparel industry. In 1986 The North Face collaborated with Patagonia, REI and Kelty to create the Conservation Alliance, an organisation that helps to fund and advocate for the protection of North America’s wild places. They have grown from 4 to over 200 members and they disperse $1.8 million a year to help protect and preserve wild places and wildlife. This kind of openness to tackling big issues is really important.

In the same way, supermarkets in the UK stood shoulder to shoulder with Sainsbury’s against racism and discrimination after the racist backlash against the recent Christmas ad. This is a demonstration of the opportunities businesses can create to deliver positive change, and to take a stand, if they come together. It is an extraordinarily powerful act, not least because the system brands operate in sets them out as ‘warring rivals’ rather than similar people in similar organisations that could and should be setting out to achieve similar purpose led goals.

So, the way to avoid purpose wash hinges on businesses and business leaders thinking more holistically about their role in society. It is about collaboration, about action and about having the right skills involved at a leadership level to create positive change. Once the plan is in place, and the actions committed to, then all businesses should be talking confidently to their customers about purpose – because they are more than ready to listen.

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