Purpose-driven organizations and those that claim to be purpose-driven are on the rise over the past decade. While the activation of purpose is a growing trend, I'm seeing more and more companies brandish purpose in a way that is inauthentic.
When done well, purpose can show commitment to a higher cause, and our human desire to want, need and be something more. Having a purpose can rouse our spirits with unshakable courage and make us believe we can overcome insurmountable odds and achieve our greatest victories. By being good, we do good. However, when done poorly, and not backed up by real action, purpose can come off as nothing more than a thinly-disguised marketing campaign.
Look no further than the Fearless Girl statue and the recent ill-conceived Pepsi ad for some real-world examples.
When Fearless Girl first arrived in Manhattan's financial district -- standing defiantly against the iconic Charging Bull that has come to define Wall Street -- people everywhere were intrigued and inspired. The statue was placed in middle of the night to celebrate International Women's Day. It was first touted as a symbol of female empowerment and gender equality, until it was seen for what it really is -- a clever advertising trick jaunt with fake corporate feminism.
Fearless Girl was the brainchild of McCann and State Street Global Advisors, an asset management firm that has a distinct lack of women on its executive board. Apparently "girl power" is nice in theory, but doesn't exist in their own reality.
While positioning your brands in a positive and socially responsible way may seem like a good idea, if it is not backed up by internal authenticity and concrete action, the illusion quickly falls apart. When consumers find out that they have been duped, the backlash is fast and furious, as Pepsi recently discovered.
The folks at Pepsi thought it was a good idea to pay homage to the #blacklivesmatter movement. Unfortunately, they did so in the most transparent, crass and cynical manner possible. The finished commercial showed erstwhile reality star Kendall Jenner walking away from a shoot, joining a nearby protest and diffusing the current racial tension by handing the white riot police a cold refreshing Pepsi.
In hindsight, it is blindingly obvious just how tone-deaf and ill-advised this was, but like so many examples of purpose washing, no one saw it at the time. Within a matter of hours, the Pepsi ad disappeared into thin air, but the damage had already been done.
Modern consumers are savvier and more informed than ever before, and the advertising tricks that worked a decade ago have become entirely useless and counterproductive. Business owners, marketing executives and entrepreneurs who doubt this need look no further than the long list of purpose washing cautionary tales:
- The much-touted but ultimately much-maligned Audi Superbowl ad -- The ad may have been well-intentioned, but its message fell apart quickly when drivers discovered the iconic German automaker employed few female executives and had a wide gender pay gap of its own. The image of the entirely white male Audi board did not help, and the expensive commercial quickly faded into obscurity.
- The GE Ecomagination experiment -- Best known to environmental activists for pulling the Hudson River and slow-walking its cleanup, GE launched an ill-fated marketing campaign touting its environmental and social responsibility. Activists quickly saw through the Ecomagination smokescreen, much to the chagrin of GE and its board members.
- Sea World and its response to animal activists -- When the documentary Blackfish first aired, Sea World embarked on an ambitious, and ultimately unsuccessful, defense of its parks and other operations. The company touted its supposed commitment to animal welfare and the rescue of stranded marine mammals, but many viewers saw these attempts as more cynical than sincere. By early 2016, Sea World had given in to public pressure, announcing that it was phasing out its killer whale shows once and for all.
While the dangers of purpose washing are ready apparent, so is its solution. In the modern world of advertising and educated consumers, it is not enough for companies to tout their environmental responsibility, social conscience and response to current events. If they want to be taken seriously, marketers, entrepreneurs and business owners need leaders to live their ideals, doing well by doing good and avoiding the purpose washing label in the process.
Companies who wish to tout their commitment to racial equality would do well to support the causes people of color care about. Companies that want to support gender equality should first make sure their boards are diversified and the men and women who work there enjoy equal levels of pay. Business owners who talk about environmental responsibility and sustainable production should make sure their own production methods are as green as possible. Modern consumers are not looking for perfection, but they can spot a liar a mile away.