How to Avoid “Cause-Washing” Your Brand

In Purpose, Mission & Values

“When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible”. Howard Schultz

10-15 years ago, the word “green” started to appear on everything from cleaning products to hotel bathrooms to energy companies. It became a public demonstration of a commitment to the earth, a care for living things and a pursuit of sustainability. What started as a noble cause has been hijacked by companies looking to slap a sticker on a commodity product in the hope of appearing differentiated or caring. Such is the proliferation of this activity, it has not only been given a name – greenwashing – but you can now find indexes where the public is encouraged to post examples of green claims which can be investigated and discussed by the greater public.

According to the aforementioned, greenwashing is when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush.

Today we have to contend with the latest nefarious brush stroke, that of Cause-Washing, the increasing occurrence of brands using marketing to claim social good when in fact, they are not. I have yet to come across an index that calls out such activities but as more and more brands move towards becoming purpose driven organizations, yet more brands will hope to capture the upside of this movement without any of the hard work.

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Sadly, the joke is on them, not us. Cause-Washing is a short term (perceived) solution to a long term problem. A problem created by an organization that either doesn’t know how or doesn’t care enough to implement the strategies and change necessary to be a true pioneer of social change.

An example of this would be a brand that claims to be a pioneer of improving conditions for the poorest in the community by writing an annual check to charity x while staff work 80 hours for sub standard pay. Another would be a company that claims to support childhood development, while maternity leave policies in the company require mothers to return to work as soon as they are legally obligated and assigning projects that make it difficult for mothers to maintain a balance between work and home.

True pioneers of change and social impact – remember that profits and purpose are not mutually exclusive – understand that change and pursuit of purpose starts at the top. Conversely, the fish can also rot from the head, so purpose driven brands are driven from the board room to the mail room. There is no shortcut to aligning a company around a cause or a purpose. It requires research, discovery, clarity and alignment that is felt at every level and every department.

True pioneers of change and social impact – remember that profits and purpose are not mutually exclusive – understand that change and pursuit of purpose starts at the top.

As irrational beings, we don’t do our jobs just because there’s a check on a Friday. We need the check to survive, but checks can come from many places. To truly be engaged, happy and useful to the company cause, we must feel part of something bigger than a paycheck and bigger than ourselves. Replacing this effort with a sticker or a snazzy marketing campaign is the quickest way to create further disengagement in your organization, not to mention the public backlash when that Cause-Washing Index appears.

Your choice.

This article may be reprinted when the copyright, link to article and author bio are included. ©2015 Storyforge, LLC.  Please contact us for inquiries.

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Barry-028 2Barry Chandler is the co-founder of Storyforge, a brand strategy company focused on helping companies discover their purpose to allow them achieve their vision, build preference and drive margin. Barry has been building award winning businesses since launching his first company in Ireland in 2003. His last company, a digital marketing agency, was acquired in 2012 by a California based publicly traded entertainment company which then hired him as Chief Marketing Officer. It is his belief that the greatest brands seek to change the world, improving the lives of their associates, partners and customers.