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Avoiding Purpose-Washing: When, How and Where Brands Can Embed Purpose into Business, Brand and Experience

By 3p Contributor
avoid purpose washing


By Alison DaSilva, EVP, Purpose/CSR, Cone Communications

The evolution of responsible business has yet again taken an exciting turn as we encounter a perfect storm. Due to omnipresent social media, an absence of government leadership on critical social and environmental issues, and near-unprecedented levels of activism across demographics, social consciousness is at an all-time high. And consumers expect companies to have a more meaningful reason for being, beyond the products they create.

Now, companies are playing a critical role in solving some of the world’s most complex issues while expounding how this work serves greater missions than just feeding a bottom line. Companies are innovating by ensuring positive impact is rooted into the very bedrock of an organization – in its reason for being, or, Purpose.

At Cone, we believe Purpose is more than a mission statement or commitment of values. Purpose defines an organization’s authentic role and value in society that allows it to simultaneously grow its business and positively impact the world. It must be deeply embedded within the organization, the brand and the experience that is delivered.

For some, like Patagonia or TOMS, Purpose drives every aspect of the business and is pervasive throughout the organization. For others, their Purpose may be focused on responsible business practices or social innovation and impact. There are many ways that companies can demonstrate their Purpose in an authentic way, as long as they are clear on their objectives, goals and current and future commitments. Based on how deeply ingrained the Purpose is within organization, it can be a primary filter for your communications approach.

Because while “Purpose” is on the tip of nearly every marketer’s tongue, we must be careful to avoid the fate of other responsible business trends of bygone times –from “greenwashing” to “pinkwashing.” That’s why it’s critical that Purpose is not just a newfangled marketing tactic or flash-in-the-pan campaign, but a lens through which business decisions are made.

Once an organization identifies and operationalizes its authentic role in society, then the questions become, when, how and where to share that Purpose. Here’s how a company can bring Purpose to life through strong communications:

When: The first query practitioners often have is, “When should we be communicating our Purpose?” You can’t approach Purpose as a marketing campaign that has a start and an end, nor a tagline that gets slapped on every piece of marketing. It needs to be seamlessly integrated throughout the brand and amplified at the right moments to show how you are demonstrating or living your Purpose. While it doesn’t need to be front and center in each and every message, it should be felt. Sustainable clothing brand Reformation excels at this through making sure its Purpose is heard during specific times like Earth Day or the launch of its 2017 sustainability report (delivered entirely via email) but also throughout the year, all laddering back to the brand’s value proposition: “Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. Reformation is #2.”

How: To authentically communicate Purpose, companies should focus not just on articulating their role in society, but also sharing the reasons to believe – or proof points – about how they are living their Purpose. Companies should humanize their Purpose to make it relevant and tangible for individuals (think Stella Artois and Water.org’s hidden-camera-esque spot featuring Matt Damon). And then they need to back that up to show the impact of their efforts, whether that is through data and metrics or heartfelt stories of beneficiaries.



Purpose defines an organization’s authentic role and value in society that allows it to simultaneously grow its business and positively impact the world. It must be deeply embedded within the organization, the brand and the experience that is delivered.

Where: For stakeholders to really feel a company’s Purpose, content should be delivered through a battery of formats and channels, creating a 360-degree experience. In fact, nearly eight-in-10 (79 percent) Americans say they are more likely to believe a company’s social and environmental commitments if that company shares its efforts in multiple ways. This helps to establish authenticity in the eyes of consumers, where more than half (58 percent) of Americans say if a company only communicates in a few channels, they are less likely to believe that company is being authentic in its commitments. When thinking of that 360-degree communications experience, companies should look across owned, earned and paid channels:

• Owned: Owned channels are the easiest to control, ensuring consistent communications. There are also myriad ways to activate from social media platforms and websites, to brick and mortar and the physical experience that is delivered. Companies that do this right exude Purpose from the very moment consumers walk in the door or pick up a product. Think of the multiple touchpoints when ordering a salad at Sweetgreen, from local farm partners featured on a blackboard to the brown takeaway bag emblazoned with the words “Passion X Purpose.” While on-pack is highly sought-after real estate for a brand, extending Purpose messages there shows a serious corporate commitment and won’t be missed. Wear Your Label clothing, a company dedicated to products that encourage conversations around mental health, come with care tags that have been transformed into “self-care tags.”

A critical component of owned communications is to start within, through internal communications. Three-quarters of American employees feel it’s important their employer shares goals, progress and achievements related to a company’s social and environmental commitment. And once employees feel engaged in their company’s Purpose, they can act as front-line ambassadors and eager amplifiers of the brand message. In fact, more than half of employees are willing to share company content and use branded hashtags with their social media networks. Timberland’s* Global Stewards Program, launched in 2006, helps to increase the reach and impact of Timberland’s responsibility efforts around the world. The Global Stewards are a team of passionate and committed employees (one or more per country in which Timberland operates) who volunteer for a two-year term, above and beyond their regular job responsibilities, to drive service and impact at a local level.

• Earned: Through earned communications, companies can share their Purpose and also participate in dialogues already taking place. Throughout the year, organizations can create tentpole campaigns around planned events, announcements or efforts. They can also use their Purpose as a guide to determine if they want to lean in and participate in issues the world is talking about in real-time, whether that is Earth Month, International Women’s Day, Black History Month.

Patagonia created a tidal wave of conversation with its announcement to sue President Trump, but the campaign laddered up to the outdoor retailer’s longstanding support of national parks and public spaces. Spurred by the influx of social media advocacy, a spark around a specific issue or topic can quickly turn into a groundswell of support for an issue. Companies should be prepared to show up and move fast if that issue is in alignment with the brand’s Purpose. This is the lens Airbnb used when word of 2017’s travel ban made headlines. The brand was able to act quickly with a statement of opposition, interviews with CEO Brian Chesky and plan to offer free lodging to refugees in limbo due to the ban because of its clear Purpose to “create belonging everywhere.”

• Paid: To create a true Purpose-driven brand experience, companies can leverage paid channels to insert their message into consumers everyday lives, interactions, routines – and newsfeeds. L.L.Bean** launched its “Be An Outsider” campaign using a traditional ad with a twist. The outdoor retailer institution deployed a full-page ad in the New York Times that utilized photochromic ink which could only be visible once the ad was brought outside. The simple activation hit home on the company’s focus “to design products that make it easier for families of all kinds to spend time outside together.” The paid-tactic was then complimented with a surround-sound experience including in-store signage, web presence and social media content.

Purpose may be the shiniest new toy in a marketer’s toolkit, but it’s far more than a tagline, quick campaign or moment-in-time effort. Purpose truly defines a company’s role in society and must be deeply embedded within the organization. When Purpose is authentic and backed by solid reasons to believe, we have the opportunity to build deeper bonds with our stakeholders – connecting on the things that truly matter most.

*Cone client

**Cone client, Cone did not work on this campaign

Originally published in CR Magazine - Summer 2018

Image credit: Unsplash/Antenna

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