Purposeful Marketing: Avoiding the Traps of Purpose Washing — People with Purpose (2023)

How do you communicate with your audience effectively? We recommend adopting a purposeful marketing approach. When organisations orient the activities of their operations, including marketing, to their purpose, they build trust with their stakeholders, which in turn, leads to greater engagement, impact, and success.

However, there is a dangerous line between purposeful marketing and ‘purpose washing’. Read more to learn how to effectively implement purposeful marketing within your business.

Importance of purpose in marketing

IESE Business School declared 2020 would be the year of purpose. Since then, we have faced many challenges across the globe which have highlighted the need for meaningful change. These challenges have contributed to an unprecedented rise in the numbers of activists fighting for their voices to be heard.

The world needs purposeful businesses more than ever. Many of the issues we face as a society are not confined to geographical or political borders and are unlikely to be solved within those constructs. Fortunately, companies can operate across geographical and political boundaries and therefore possess tremendous opportunities for systemic influence. Furthermore, consumer expectations of businesses’ responsibility to society (and not just their shareholders) are increasing. It is indeed, high time for companies to take the reins and lead with purpose. Those who choose not to will be left behind.

In this context, it is becoming critical for businesses to integrate their purpose in their communications with various audiences.

Sadly, purpose marketing has become a strategy some businesses in-authentically employ to grow their brands by exploiting consumer desire to make better buying decisions. Meanwhile, other purposeful brands begin with genuine intentions but suffer huge backlash if their actions in prominent circumstances are (deemed) hypocritical.

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For this reason, organisations who choose to lead with purpose must ensure they do so beyond their marketing strategy, and root their purpose in the core of all operations to ensure alignment between what their company says and what their company does.

So, how might businesses build purpose into their marketing and rise purposefully from any ethical dilemmas they encounter? Let’s find out.

Walk the Talk

If your business has a purpose, it is not enough to promote the slogan without a clear strategy to realise your intention, and a measurable implementation plan to create the impact you desire.

Woolworths Group, who describe themselves as “on a journey to become a purpose-led organisation,” has a purpose to create better experiences together for a better tomorrow. On World Environment Day, their CEO shared with email subscribers that they are committed to a greener tomorrow. This statement (which aligns with their purpose) was accompanied with examples of actions they have taken to honour that commitment including:

  • Contributed to the reduction of 6 billion bags in two years since the phasing out of single-use plastic bags and recently introduced paper shopping bags across all supermarkets and metro stores.

  • Removed over 890 tonnes of plastic packaging from fruit, vegetable and bakery products over the past two years.

  • Commenced a trial switch from plastic packaging to easy-to-recycle boxes for the Fresh Food Kids fruit range.

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These steps align with Woolworth’s purpose and help preserve trust between the business and its stakeholders by providing evidence of measurable, purposeful action.

Reflective Questions

  • What is your organisation’s purpose? Does your purpose inform your company strategy? Is it clear to every team in the business how they contribute to that purpose?

  • Look at your organisation and its purpose from an external perspective; what actions might be expected of you to fulfil your stated intentions? Are you taking those actions, if not, why not? If so, what more could you do to be a more purposeful business?

  • What else could Woolworths Group do “to create better experiences together for a better tomorrow?”

Stick to your Point

Companies need to reflect their purpose in their communications and operations, but don’t necessarily need to comment on every social issue that emerges. Purposeful marketers consider which issues are most relevant to their activities, audience, brand and values, and which are not.

A prime example of an organisation that lives and breathes its purpose and values is Patagonia. Patagonia describes its purpose as being In Business to Save Our Home Planet. When sharing their ‘Don’t Buy this Jacket’ campaign on Black Friday - one of the biggest shopping days of the year, the company purposefully encouraged each of us to do our bit to lighten our environmental footprint.

But if you search for Patagonia’s commentary on the #MeToo Movement, you’ll find that they were relatively silent, and arguably, appropriately so, as other clothing brands who engaged in the conversation were accused of hijacking the #MeToo Movement.

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Reflective Questions

  • Which social and environmental issues are most relevant to your organisation’s purpose? Which are least relevant?

  • Can you think of a time when your brand remained silent on an issue where it would have been authentic to speak up?

  • Can you think of a time when your brand responded to an issue that wasn’t well-aligned to your purpose? Were there any unintended consequences? What could you learn from this?

  • Which organisation do you most admire for how they’ve managed their response to COVID-19? Why? Which do you least admire? Why?

Stay the Course

The infamous stance “believe in something, unless it means sacrificing something” which Nike carelessly adopted, comes to mind here.

Nike chose to support those struggling for human rights, by campaigning with the headline “believe in something, even when it means sacrificing everything.” However, when it came to the crunch, the business chose profit over purpose. After the Rockets (Chinese NBA team) received some backlash for supporting protesters who were fighting for freedom of expression, Nike chose to delist all merchandise from the team, which in the end, only hurt Nike’s reputation further.

This is a great, albeit unfortunate, example of ‘purpose washing’, where businesses initially take a stand that appeals to popular sentiment within their target market, but back down when it comes to putting it into practice. Effective purpose marketing relies on businesses committing to their cause and following through with it in all their actions and business decisions, even when it could be unpopular and unprofitable to do so in the short run.As Warren Buffett said, It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

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With this in mind, organisations can begin to build an effective purposeful marketing strategy which showcases their intentions and beliefs, engages their target audiences and helps them stand out from the competition.

Reflective Questions

  • What other examples of purpose washing spring to mind?

  • Can you think of a set of circumstances that might cause you to back-track on a purposeful position your company has taken?

  • What principles could you put in place to help your organisation respond purposefully despite the pressures of those circumstances?

  • Is there a way that Nike could have responded to these circumstances that may have better balanced purpose and profit?

  • What principles could you put in place at the design phase of your marketing strategy and tactics that might purposefully build rather than destroy value for your brand.

July is B Corp Month. People With Purpose is proud to be a certified B Corp, part of the global community of businesses that balance purpose and profit and actively consider the impact of our decisions on our workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment. To find out more visit https://bcorporation.net/

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