What is Purpose Washing?
With 5% of the world’s total spending accounted for by Gen-Z, and a whopping 22% by Millenials, a figure which is steadily climbing, brands are being challenged in ways industries have never seen before.
Born with endless information at their fingertips, and apps such as Instagram and Tiktok spreading information on social causes at lightning speed, research shows that for your brand to stay profitable and relatable, the future is looking political. In fact, studies show 45% of Gen Z’ers will gladly boycott a business for not aligning to their values, whilst 36% will buy products aligned with their values above all else. Purpose-driven spending is even higher with their older counterparts Millenials, with research indicating over 60% of the generation are willing to spend more to support a brand acting ethically and having a positive societal impact.
Though demands for social action are widely attributed to the younger generations, thanks to the power of echo-chambers and social media, expectations from consumers for sustainability and social responsibility are spreading at lightning speed across all age groups. This sudden change in climate in the retail sector is forcing brands to adapt almost overnight to stay relevant, and from construction to fashion, brands are meeting the challenge to hold themselves accountable. With Gucci launching a circular line made from recycled materials, and McDonald’s declaring they will begin selling vegan burgers, no industry is safe.
In light of the purpose-driven revolution, many brands are resorting to questionable marketing tactics such as ‘purpose washing’ to stay afloat and appear as though they are responding to the needs of their customers by standing for something. Purpose washing is a marketing tactic that is used by companies to make themselves seem more ethical and environmentally friendly, but rather than taking the responsible steps to bolster these claims, they use deception to appear as though they are acting responsibly. Whilst purpose washing can be seen in many different industries, the most common sector we see it occur is in the Fashion industry, where it’s often called ‘greenwashing’ due to relating heavily to sustainability.
The Dangers of Purpose Washing in Marketing
Purpose washing has been around for decades, however with consumers becoming more aware of political issues and demanding accountability, trends have shown it has become an increasingly popular marketing tool. Many companies use purpose washing to market themselves as sustainable, or to align themselves with key political movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement. While it may seem like a good idea to use your platform as a business to speak out against key social and environmental issues, many companies that do this are actually taking little to no action towards supporting these causes behind the scenes, all while reaping the benefits to get ahead of those who take the time and energy to make real, fundamental changes to people and the planet.
By using purpose washing in marketing, consumers are entirely unaware that when they are sold products based on a brand aligning with their values, it is often not what it seems. This is not only deceiving consumers, but it derails the positive momentum of the social causes entirely by gaining negative PR and taking sales away from brands who are doing the right thing.
For companies who rely on purpose washing, consumers are wising up to the ways in which purpose washed marketing is used, and are sometimes choosing not to buy from these brands at all. A perfect example of an opportunity to stay relevant and show your care, The #blacklivesmatter movement was arguably one of the first humanitarian considerations picked up by brands all over the world. Brands big and small came together, using their platforms to highlight widespread systematic racism in the US. A perfect example of this is Nike, whose biggest campaign of the year “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” featuring Colin Kaepernic centered around the Black Lives Matter movement.
Whilst Nike’s bold marketing campaign was met with praise on an international level, their success was short lived. In 2019, Nike pulled Houston Rockets merchandise from Chinese stores, following comments of support for Hong Kong made by their General Manager. Consumers saw this as hypocritical, and an obvious demonstration of prioritising the 1.68 billion dollars revenue from the Rockets popularity in China over their pre-established ethics and morals.
The almost whiplash-inducing reaction to Nike from the court of public opinion just goes to show that using your platform to advocate for change is great, if you do it consistently. If you don’t, you can be sure someone will call you out on it. With cancel culture at an all time high, blogs such as Diet Prada are dedicated entirely to calling out brands for such practices, and have been responsible for notable cancellations such as alternative fashion brand Dolls Kill, who faced criticism in 2020 for inappropriate comments made by their CEO in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, which Doll’s Kill claimed to be supporters of.
Lead with Authenticity and Purpose through Brand Strategy
Taking a stand with your brand is more than a long-winded mission statement, or putting out token information on a national holiday. It’s about standing for something you truly believe in, using your privilege and platform as a creator of positive change big or small. With endless social injustices in the world to choose from, finding something that is not only relevant to your brand’s pre-existing values but builds an emotional connection with your target customers is vital to championing authenticity above all else. This is where purpose led brand strategy comes into play.
Purpose led brand strategy is the art of integrating your values into every aspect of your business. A perfect example of this is Patagonia, who have pledged 1% for the planet since their inception in 1985. With sustainability and outdoor exploration at the very crux of their business and product offering, they actively woven their purpose into every area of their business, going above and beyond to champion environmental change.
When designing your brand strategy, authenticity is key.. don’t go with the flow (or trends). Make sure whatever you stand for, you’re consistent and considered.