How brands ensure purpose doesn’t end up as greenwashing

Simon Mainwaring / Brands / 3 years ago

As the business marketplace moves closer towards being a comprehensive social experience, the onus falls upon brands to be more defined in terms of what they stand for, their core values and how they communicate them to their community of customers.  While that may sound simple it’s very complicated to execute. Here’s why:

In a competitive landscape in which more and more brands are purposefully engaged either through corporate social responsibility initiatives (CSR) or cause marketing, the danger arises that the concept of purpose will become as ubiquitous as green marketing with all the attending dangers of the equivalent of green-washing. So at one end of the authenticity spectrum, companies may apply the label of purpose to any effort that serves as window dressing for their persistent irresponsible behavior. While, at the other end, brand will demonstrate authentic engagement directed towards substantive positive change.

In order to cut through the noise and clutter, brands must be much more specific in how they define their purposeful engagement. What that looks like is the following five steps:

1. Brands  must define who they are, what they stand for and make outreach on that basis.

2. Brands must have a point of view on that purposeful engagement, whether it’s directed towards the environment, poverty, water as a resource or causes such as breast cancer or education. Merely declaring your commitment to a category or cause will not be enough the distinguish your brand sufficiently to see a return on these well-intended efforts.

3. Brands must be very specific in their choice of social media platforms through which to communicate their CSR or cause messaging.

4. Brands must create content peculiar to those platforms and how their audiences like to relate and converse about that cause.

5. Brands must commit to deep engagement with the community using those platforms whose values are aligned with the brand’s.

Only when a brand does this can it hope to not only make an authentic contribution to social change, but in so doing build a community of brand advocates with similar concerns. That way they can differentiate themselves from the pretenders that will attempt to use purpose as yet another marketing strategy to merely serve their bottom line with no authenticate commitment to change themselves or our world.

Do you believe most brands will authentically engage with social change?  If not, what do you think is the best way to hold them accountable?

7 Comments

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  1. Richard says:

    Simon,

    Great post as usual.

    I believe some brands will engage authentically, we’ve already begun to see examples ranging from Patagonia or Wal-Mart as Umair Haque points out in The New Capitalist Manifesto. Also, COMMON from Alex Bogusky & Rob Schuham & John Bielenberg is a great example of a more creative approach to this arena as well.

    The only way to hold them accountable to it would be policy on a global, systemic level, which is unlikely. Or, consumers being informed and making choices based on how companies conduct themselves. My fear with that approach is too many people are sleepwalking through life and don’t think about the impact of their purchase. The lack of awareness at an individual level of the complexity our global situation is scary.

    I hope more people begin reading your book and checking out sites such as FearLessRevolution.com.

    It’s a start…

    Richard

    1. Thanks Richard,

      Yes, Umair and Alex are doing great stuff. And I agree, the challenge from
      my perspective is how to engage consumers so they become more engaged and
      conscious. I’m sure the ultimate solution lies in a blend of all these
      things. I have seen FearlessRevolution – I think it’s great what they’re
      doing. Thanks, Richard.

  2. Larry says:

    Hey Simon,

    I’ve been reading your blog consistently over the last months and really love the engaging thought that you bring to it!

    Regarding this particular topic, I believe that in order for the purpose/cause related branding to be authentic it must be in alignment with an underlying stated purpose as you’ve said. But that purpose cannot be in opposition to it’s core business. So when you have a company like BP in the past, branding themselves as “Beyond Petroleum” it just doesn’t work. It’s what I call specious branding. The profit motive must be tethered to the purpose motive – as Dan Pink has said. I don’t think “most” brands are there yet, because they may not get the benefit, esp in the short term which is where most large corps are focused. As Richard has posted below, the only way to hold them accountable is as consumers being conscious of how and where they spend their money. As a culture we have been lulled into making the easy choices and not doing our homework so it’s a big, slow task of educating people and shifting people’s awareness.

    Interesting to put both Patagonia and Walmart in the same category below. I cannot imagine a company like Walmart as it is currently configured ever really being an “authentic” brand that is functioning with CSR at the forefront.

    Thanks so much for your blog!

    Larry

    1. Hi Larry, Thanks for the support with the blog. I agree purpose presents a
      difficult problems for brands whose create products or services that can be
      harmful. Plus the shift to a long term focus is hard too. I too agree that
      engaged consumers are the key to the solution. i know Walmart still has
      challenges to face but from where they were they are making very impressive
      CSR strides and because of their size this is hugely encouraging. Thanks,
      Larry. Simon

  3. Chimimimusic says:

    Excellent! I agree wholeheartedly.

    Engagement in authentic, social change will be entirely dependent upon the existing culture of the brand/organization as described in “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. The only way for a consumer to hold a brand accountable is to not engage with the brand. Brand’s would do well to pay very close attention the power of the “empowered consumer”.

    1. Thanks, and yes. The consumer is critical in this process to hold brands
      accountable. I think we’ll see amazing changes in the coming years. Thanks,
      Simon

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