'Silence makes you complicit' – six ways marketers can get purpose right

How to avoid purpose-washing, from some of the UK's top marketers at Campaign's Media 360 event.

ITV: ran an ad in support of Diversity after its Black Lives Matter-inspired routine drew complaints
ITV: ran an ad in support of Diversity after its Black Lives Matter-inspired routine drew complaints

How can brands speak about purpose in an effective way while avoiding accusations of “purpose-washing”? Four marketers shared their take at a panel session at Campaign’s Media360 event yesterday. Here’s their advice:

Authenticity matters

It’s an obvious point, but one that can’t be stressed enough  authenticity matters.

“The generation that I’m part of is very big on authenticity, Ruby-Jade Aryiku, co-founder and head of PR at digital talent agency Vamp, said.

“So don’t say anything at all if you’re going to be fake. Take a step back and let someone who genuinely cares have that stage and that voice to talk about a purpose-driven initiative.” 

Ovo Energy’s marketing director Sarah Booth agreed that while “every brand needs a purpose, because you need to unite your organisation behind it”, not every brand needs to communicate it. 

“Where the purpose or the mission of the business is aligned with what drives choice in the category, we might want to put that front and centre of our communications, she said.

But while you want to ensure you are morally robust as a business, if it’s not driving consumer choice, some of us are putting it too high in the hierarchy of our messaging.” Sometimes people just want to buy a biscuit. 

Select an appropriate cause

ITV has spoken up about mental wellness over the past year. When it comes to selecting the right cause to promote, the broadcaster's director of social purpose Claire Philips said it was important to look at who else was speaking on a topic and assess whether, as an organisation, you have credibility in the space.

Brands, she said, should ask: “Is this going to give us a competitive advantage or disadvantage? Is this motivating for our audiences? Is this something they want us to talk about?” 

Once you've decided on a cause, you need to decide what to say on the subject. ITV researched what other companies were saying about the topic of mental health and decided that there was an opportunity for it to speak on mental wellness.

This aligned with the scale of their brand  it speaks to a mass audience and by speaking about mental wellness, “it communicates to the four in four of us who have mental health that we need to take care of, as opposed to the one in four of us who might be having a mental health crisis at any one time,” Philips said. 

Remember your internal audience

Marketers tend to focus on their external audiences, but don’t forget the impact these communications have internally. Scott Somerville, head of advertising, PR and campaigns at E.On, said taking a point of view on a topic and communicating it can be crucial for staff. “This is about our own self-identity of being proud to work somewhere. You can motivate your own organisation through talking externally about how you do business.”

It doesn’t have to be perfect

Perfection often leads to paralysis. Somerville explained that E.On’s business has been through a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It wanted to talk to customers about this shift because it was central to its new business strategy, but it was concerned about whether it had earned the right to speak on the topic yet.

“We started to raise air pollution as an issue, but we took a while to get out of the front door with it. The reason was we still use things like diesel vans that add to air pollution. We’re not perfect.

"But what we found was that consumers responded to that because none of us are perfect in our own life, especially around sustainability topics. We’ll all try and take a reusable coffee cup to whatever coffee shop you prefer but if you forget it, most people will probably still buy a coffee.”

Booth agreed. When Ovo made the decision to start communicating about its sustainability activity, she was clear from the start that they were likely to "get things wrong" about their comms approach, but that this shouldn't put them off trying. "We're going to need to work though it and think about it," she said. Don’t let the fear of making a mistake get in the way of changing for the better.  

Marketers should be kinder to each other

When Ovo Energy tried to take action on sustainability, it was met with a lot of industry support but also a lot of criticism because it wouldn’t be perfect.

“What really struck me was how quickly people are willing to criticise, Booth said. It’s human nature that if the first time we do something we’re told that we’re wrong, we might go and hide behind a hedge and not try again. So it’s important that we are allies to each other as we try. 

“Of course, call each other out for making missteps and help each other to get better in a coaching sense, but if we are too quick with our social media cancel culture mentality, we’re only going to be putting ourselves in stasis, or worse, sending ourselves backwards. It makes it very nerve-wracking to put yourself out there and have a crack at making things better.” 

Brands should take a stand

Last year, ITV took a bold step. When Ofcom received 24,000 complaints about dance troupe Diversity’s Black Lives Matter themed performance on Britain’s Got Talent, ITV released an anti-racism statement and ad supporting the group. 

Philips said of that time: “It’s never nice to be in the middle of these crisis situations because things move incredibly quickly. But what it proved to us was that it’s important that brands take a stand. It wasn’t plain sailing. It was a bit scary. But there was no authenticity gap because we were responding to editorial. I’d rather we were encouraging brands to take a stand, because I’d rather try and maybe not get it perfect the first time around, but we are still trying.”

Somerville agreed. Running a commodity brand that targets universal audiences, E.On has a tendency towards being very polite in its communications so it doesn’t offend people.

“But I think social media has changed so much now that you can’t not have a view,” he said. If you are not taking a stand now, you will get criticised from both sides. I don’t think silence is an option – silence makes you complicit.”


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