Avoiding Purpose-Washing

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman highlights the difference between a good ad campaign and authentically embracing purpose.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Apple under Steve Jobs was obsessed with Apple’s “Why” and until his death, had an extraordinarily influential hand in the company’s brand and associated ad campaigns. Millions will remember the “Get a Mac” commercials, in which John Hodgman’s conventional PC and Justin Long‘s relaxed Mac trade a series of hilarious quips.

Under Jobs, Apple’s messaging never centered on features or upgrades — it was centered on what made Apple and its users more unique, innovative, and personable than their buttoned-up competitors. In 2010, Adweek declared this campaign the best advertising of the first decade of the new century. Apple buyers weren’t purchasing computers, they were purchasing a new and more meaningful identity.

I’d argue we are entering a Purpose Economy, where it’s not just what you do, but why you do it. Brand promise—the raison d'?tre that guides everything from marketing to customer experience to employee engagement—is a growing focal point. According to a study by Cone/Porter Novelli, nearly eight-in-10 (79%) Americans say they are more loyal to Purpose-driven brands than traditional brands and nearly three-quarters (73%) are more willing to defend them.  As research continues to underline the value of purpose, brand promise is one of the strongest levers an organization has to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace.

But hold on. As “purpose” inches to the top of marketers’ priority list, a pressing question arises. Where’s the line between a compelling and meaningful brand promise and purpose-washing, an opportunistic an inauthentic attempt to appear socially conscious? What does “meaning” look like beyond a terrific ad campaign?

Upon interviewing 30 founders, CEOs, and senior executives at consumer companies with visible and authentic purposes—including Chobani, TOMS, Warby Parker, Etsy, KIND Healthy Snacks, and West Elm—Korn Ferry identified this key insight: “Although these brands are celebrated for their external images, customer engagement, and positive impact in the world, their commitments to people and purpose inside their companies fuel their success.” 

Korn Ferry found that there were a few key conditions that distinguished these thriving purpose-driven organizations. The firms engaged employees, had customer-oriented cultures, and strong financial results.

The other critical conditions include:

  • CEOs or front line managers embrace purpose-guided leadership and decision-making.
  • The idea that people matter most and investing in them is what drives growth.
  • That people bring their whole selves to work. The corporate culture is reflective of human communities.
  • A pervasive commitment to purpose can be seen in every part of the organization—purpose is practiced and enabled in all roles and departments.

For brands like Patagonia, TOMS, and Warby Parker—businesses founded on social purpose—purpose-washing is less of a concern. Imagine if Patagonia pulled out of all of their environmental efforts or if TOMS ended its one-for-one program, where every shoe bought spurs a pair of shoes for someone living in poverty? Without purpose, it’s hard to imagine these brands thriving.

The brands at the greatest risk of purpose-washing are those just jumping on the bandwagon. These are brands that have already established themselves without a meaningful brand promise and only now are they concerned with developing one. These brands face complex challenges. Entire systems, strategies and hiring campaigns need to be rethought through the lens of purpose.

Marketing experts Omar Rodríguez Vilá at Emory University and Sundar Bharadwaj, a professor of marketing at the University of Georgia, found that when established brands roll out a new social-purpose strategy, three things drive negative reactions: inconsistency between the brand promise and what the company does; a too-political promise; or stakeholders’ are suspicious about the firm’s motives.

From “greenwashing” to “pinkwashing,” companies who use purpose as a marketing tactic risk the same fate as other responsible business trends. When it comes to making your branding promise more purposeful, remember that stakeholders are getting quicker to question. And it’s not so easy to recover from a broken promise.

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