Purpose Washing, and How To Avoid It

In Brand Strategy, Purpose, Mission & Values

Cause washing, greenwashing, pinkwashing … all monikers developed to describe an age-old business tactic: inauthenticity – and in some cases bold faced deception – in the name of profitability. I’ll add one to the list: purpose-washing.

We have all seen the flashy marketing campaigns touting a company’s purpose, soon revealed to be expensive hot air when compared to the realities of how the company actually operates (internally and externally).

How to avoid this? Before you use your purpose for external marketing – look inward. Follow these three steps:

Step #1: understand the difference between articulating a purpose and living it.

A recent Millward Brown Study (Insights2020: Driving Growth Through Customer-Centricity) revealed that growth companies have one key characteristic in common: purpose. But that’s not all. Many under-performing companies also have stated purposes … so what’s the difference? Growth companies in the study not only had a purpose, but also made sure their purpose was more than a marketing tag line. A remarkable 80 percent of over-performing companies in the study invested in ensuring that all activities in the company were purpose-led, compared to only 32 percent of under-performers. Discovering your purpose is just the beginning.

Step #2: align everything in your organizationnot just your external positioning – with your purpose. Look at external and internal positioning, people, programs, processes, products, profits and philanthropy. All programs and all activities should be considered through the filter of your purpose.

The study’s authors state it well:

“The biggest challenge lies not in defining a purpose, but in living it consistently across the whole organization, ensuring that it remains elevated and a guide to all business activities, not just an element of brand communications or marketing mix. Ultimately, purpose should be the foundation of all strategic choices and decisions and used to create a movement for employees and customers, a movement that has an emotional and societal impact.”

Step #3: engage all your stakeholders in your purpose. As my colleague Barry Chandler wrote in his reflections on cause washing, “The fish can also rot from the head, so purpose driven brands are driven from the boardroom 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.”

From awareness campaigns to engagement activities, from sustaining internal communications strategies to recognition and performance management systems, each one aligned with purpose … all people within your organization and your partners/vendors should understand they help the company fulfill its purpose. Then, and only then, are you ready to share your purpose with your customers, your community, and the world.

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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HaleyHaley Boehning is the co-founder of Storyforge, a brand strategy company helping ambitious companies change the world by discovering their singular purpose, forging their story, and aligning their positioning, people, products and profits with it. Haley leverages 20+ years of brand and strategic communications experience, including 16 years as L Brands Vice President of Internal Communications, to create relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.