Purpose by powerpoint: the industry learnt nothing from greenwashing

Having a 'purpose' has become the new black, writes Adjust Your Set's chief innovation officer and author of book 'Do It On Purpose' Nick Timon.

The industry has learnt nothing from the greenwashing debacle
The industry has learnt nothing from the greenwashing debacle

Or, rather, I should say ‘purpose’ is the new ‘green’ because, due to the startling lack of imagination of many marketers jumping on this bandwagon, purpose has become almost synonymous with saving the world superhero-like, as brands swoop in to plant a few trees while shouting about their environmental credentials.

The industry has learnt nothing from the greenwashing debacle and instead is jumping gung-ho into the shiny new sport of ‘purpose-washing’

But purpose in marketing means more than the earth. I don’t mean to sound glib – of course environmental consciousness is important, laudable and pressing – but the way many companies are suddenly developing a social conscience on this front smacks of insincerity and laziness, as if the industry has learnt nothing from the greenwashing debacle and instead is jumping gung-ho into the shiny new sport of ‘purpose-washing’.

Purpose isn't a strategy

What many marketers are failing to realise about purpose is that you can’t approach it as a strategy. Yes, true purpose creates competitive advantage – the Stengel 50 Study showed, for example, that brands which place human values at the heart of what they do perform significantly better. But purpose is built on beliefs and beliefs are something that exist deep in your corporate DNA, they’re part of what you stand for and why you exist in the first place. Apple is a prime example of a brand that makes great products but which doesn’t define itself by them, but rather by a state of mind that drives everything it does and says.

I can imagine some marketers reading all the discourse currently on purpose and rubbing their hands with glee as they announce: "Yes! That’s what we need to do to monetise our marketing – we need a purpose! Find me a purpose!"

You can't engineer purpose by powerpoint

Sorry to disappoint you if you are one of those gleeful celebrants; it doesn’t work like that. You can’t engineer purpose by powerpoint. You can’t contrive it. You have to live purpose. Breathe it. Believe it.

It’s just like me telling you I’m a good bloke. I can keep telling you over and over again that I am, but if there’s no depth to what I’m saying – if I’m not showing you through my actions – then you won’t buy it. My words will just add to the content clutter we’re living in and you will become adept at zoning out my droning.

Purpose doesn’t even need to be sociable or worthy of admiration to attract a loyal, growing following: UKIP being a case in point

The good news is that your purpose doesn’t have to be particularly worthy or grandiose. More than anything, being purposeful today is about being authentic and truly living by your values. Your core value, for example, could be not to rip the consumer off but to provide outstanding value for money above all else – a purpose-led positioning that Lidl is pulling off to great effect. And while it is a somewhat taboo thing to say, purpose doesn’t even need to be sociable or worthy of admiration to attract a loyal, growing following: UKIP being a case in point.

Simplicity rules

The best purpose-led strategies are often the simple ones. Just look at Airbnb. Helping people feel like they can belong anywhere in the world is their absolute focus. As founder Brian Chesky puts it, "you’re not getting a room, you’re getting a sense of belonging". This underpins its entire narrative, running through everything it says and does. It dramatises why it exists, not what it does. Then it executes at scale.

Similarly, the online shoe retailer Zappos believes in ‘happiness’. Its service teams are encouraged to spend as much time as possible on calls to maximise their connection with customers – sometimes up to nine hours. The Zappos purpose and culture is its brand. It became a billion dollar business in less than a decade.

And despite what I said earlier, if done authentically, a ‘green’ positioning can create credible purpose.  Patagonia is an excellent example of this, using a sustainability-led purpose to inspire everything it does. Its ‘clear is the new clever’ mantra has driven many winning initiatives. Common Threads and the Footprint Chronicles have helped lead to a doubling of revenues and tripling of profits from 2008 – 2012.

Social, not product level

Brands like Zappos, Patagonia and Airbnb are credible to their audiences because they connect at a social, rather than just a product, level. They are creating marketing that people actually want to consume and, more importantly, share. To do that requires emotional connection.

Arguably, creating this type of self-propagating, peer-recommended marketing is modern day social responsibility. Just as, conversely, creating marketing that doesn’t emotionally resonate but just adds to the overflowing corporate noise, flogging products without purpose, is socially irresponsible.

Consumers are evolving ever more attuned BS-detectors

There is a bigger industry issue at play here, too. If you are creating mindless noise in this way, you’re not only harming your brand, but the industry’s brand too. We all need to up our game in this new age of transparency, social responsibility and authenticity.

Brands will be ignored

Brands that don't maintain a narrative rich in purpose – talking to people on a human level, appealing to causes close to their hearts – will become irrelevant, cut out of the conversation. Consumers are evolving ever more attuned BS-detectors. And that's a good thing; we can't endlessly interrupt people to talk about ourselves any more. Without an immediate and credible what's-in-it-for-me, brands will simply be ignored.

As ambitious brands are proving, finding an organisation’s human truth and sharing it with the world is the new model for marketing. Part of being human is being flawed and making mistakes. In the age of social media chatter, that’s something that brands are going to have to get better at. But brands on a mission are more likely to be forgiven for their mistakes. Why? Because consumers understand that the important thing is to be purposeful, not perfect.


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