Is purpose-washing damaging the industry?
A view from Rachel Barnes

Is purpose-washing damaging the industry?

Some brands have made authenticity their marketing strategy, rather than a business one.

It’s weird how it sometimes takes a hostile environment for optimism to make an appearance. Take our trends feature, which heralds the new era of body positivity.

When it hits the national news that women aren’t going for smear check-ups for reasons of self-consciousness, then it’s pretty obvious that it’s something in our society that is seriously flawed – not the women.

While body image, particularly among girls and women, is a long-discussed issue, the ad industry still struggles to reflect the reality of the female form. "Real women" is still trotted out as a brave concept, rather than simple reality. Put a woman with all her "flaws" in an ad and, wow, you’ve cracked authenticity right there.

The problem is that some brands have made authenticity their marketing strategy, rather than a business one, explains Marie Agudera, strategy director at Fold7. As a result, they come across as manufactured – the opposite to authentic.

"Purpose-washing" has become more prevalent than ever, as legacy businesses and start-ups alike tussle to be part of the "authentic" conversation.

However, could it be that this, at times desperate, search is in fact damaging the industry rather than giving brands a long-term place in our future?

One agency boss said to me recently that the more marketing goes down the purpose route, the more control is being handed back to the chief financial officer – and this could speed the rise of the accountants. 

While I don’t agree with this prediction entirely, we all know how common it is for one company after another to jump on the bandwagon spouting beautiful rhetoric, but not following through. The result is that sound ideals become diluted into yet another purpose-wash. And that is not a language the boardroom understands.

Purpose is not a marketing plan; it’s a backbone for the whole company. Anything less and you are one of the diluters. 

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, optimism. I honestly did plan for this to be an upbeat column, reflecting the brilliant content we have in this issue. Not to mention the weighty A List accompanying this issue, which you’ve no doubt already pored over. 

From Kraft Heinz’s new approach to long-term brand building to why you don’t need to be afraid of robots to the sparky conversation between McDonald’s Alistair Macrow and Leo Burnett’s Chaka Sobhani, we have many reasons to feel optimistic about this industry in 2018. 

A highlight for me, however, is Wayne Deakin’s very personal article about neurodiversity in which he talks about his autism publicly for the first time. His hope is that by speaking out, he can play a part in helping an untapped pool of talent find its voice.

Quoting a classic Apple ad, Deakin concludes: "Here’s to the crazy ones... the ones who see things differently." 

Seeing things differently is where this industry is at its best. I’ll leave you with a final observation from Dave Trott: "What’s worrying me at present is that the work all of us are doing is getting increasingly conventional… We’re more often nowadays concerned with trying to do the same thing, but better. Let’s look at what’s being done and do something different."

You won’t find this in his column this month, however. It was a memo to staff that he wrote 30 years ago

Rachel Barnes is the UK editor of Campaign.