Purpose-washing: why brands must ensure activism is genuine

A value isn't a value unless it costs you something

Cause-marketing has become the holy grail for marketers in recent years, and fear of being cancelled has led to the death knell for brands putting forward a distinctive point of view

Brands are no longer moving culture on — they’re adding to the noise and losing their way. Driven by a fear to be on the wrong side of a polarised environment or being excluded, brands clamour to signal their allyship to causes well outside of their lane.

Take this year’s sorry tale of Bud Light and transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. When a transphobic backlash to their collaboration ensued, the company distanced itself from her and claimed the partnership was not an advertisement, and it never intended to ‘divide people‘. The ill-fated campaign is an example of a lack of distinctive point of view or understanding of its audience. Had it been genuine, its subsequent backtracking would never have happened. The brand would have stood its ground and faced the redneck country music.

And that’s the issue. If the values you uphold truly matter, then shouldn’t you and wouldn’t you stand by it regardless of the backlash? A value isn’t a value unless it costs you something.

Empty brands

Purpose has become a meaningless word. All brands want to do good in the world, but in recent times this has tended towards lofty sustainability or social goals (embodied in ESG). But here lie the perils of blandness and conformity. A lack of grounding of purpose in your brand leads to these brands chasing the greatest common factor. Not a place of differentiation or distinctiveness.

It is no surprise that, at Cannes this year, the number of purpose campaign entries had halved.

Brands like Dove are getting it right, however. Although the ‘Real Beauty’ brand definition was a retrofit following a successful campaign, it is well-rooted in a deep human, brand and product truth. By tapping into their audience’s zeitgeist, they defined a distinctive and differentiated reason to exist. Dove was able to flip the conversation and in doing so, defined its brand’s positioning in a way that tied beauty with deeper purpose. A distinctive ‘purpose’ that has successfully stayed far away from the generic no-mans-land of ‘doing good’.

Stay in your lane

It’s understandable that brands are repeatedly falling into the sticky trap of ‘you’re either with us or against us’. This binary choice is a false one, however, and brands that are drawn in by its tentacles are adding to the noise by not standing for something. Brands that are clear about who they are, who they’re for, what they believe, and why they exist will navigate these treacherous seas much more easily. They’ll know whether they have a genuine role to play in those conversations and whether they have anything distinctive to add that moves the conversation on.

Finding your distinct point of view

Being a good brand that does good by its customers, its employees, the planet and the creatures in it doesn’t mean that is the source of its differentiation or distinctiveness. Yes, do that. But do something else that is going to change the game.

A brand’s ‘purpose’ must be an articulation of the unique role the brand plays in the lives of its citizens. This can be as simple as encouraging kids to play outside by championing an evocative idea like ‘dirt is good’. But it needs to be rooted in a human truth, and your brand and product truth.

Herein lies your distinct point of view. If you find your mayo brand has started to save the planet rather than save my chip, you’ve probably strayed too far. That doesn’t mean brands are exempt from minimizing their impact on the planet or generally being a good egg. That’s stuff you should be doing anyway. Not doing that is a reason for people not to buy you. Having a distinctive point of view is.

Featured image: Dove Self Esteem Campaign

Wander Bruijel, Senior Partner, Strategy + Provocation, Born Ugly

Wander has both client and agency experience, working in various brand and marketing leadership roles at Philips, EY and Elmwood, where he was lucky enough to work on some brands and campaigns which have won international accolades, including a Cannes Grand Prix.As a co-conspirator in Born Ugly since 2020, Wander has headed up the Provocation team. Simply put, the role of Provocation is to challenge the status quo to change the game, challenging conventions and received wisdoms that hold brands and businesses back. The goal is to change paradigms, categories and lives.Wander is driven by helping to shine a light on the way forward, asking the dumb questions nobody dares to ask to get to the unanswered to transform brands and businesses, big and small

All articles