Beyond purpose-washing: How to communicate your company's purpose

Published Feb. 21, 2023, 2 p.m. by Sini-Maria Melanen

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Every company wants to do good or to be perceived as doing so. With the recent hyperfocus on the company purpose comes a risk: purpose washing. How to communicate about purpose without merely paying lip service to it?

Defining and communicating your company's purpose has been on the corporate agenda for a while now. Everyone is looking to do good, which is great since according to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, people are increasingly expecting companies to step up and tackle global issues such as climate change and inequality. Purpose-driven companies are also doing great in stock exchanges globally.

But things start to go south when purpose is merely a marketing and communications gimmick, and people start noticing. We all know about greenwashing, but it's time to get a grip on purpose washing and how to avoid it.

Does your company need a purpose?

To be frank, the phrase 'purpose-driven' sounds factitious in 2023. While 'mission' states 'what we do', purpose is the 'why we do it'. It seems just about anything can be labelled as the company purpose – but how often is it just a marketing slogan? The urge to have a purpose can turn downright absurd, like when Unilever announced its ambition for its 400 brands to have a social or environmental purpose: does your mayo need a mission statement?, the WSJ asked.

Purpose can inspire, help to make more targeted business decisions, and point to the direction the company wants to grow towards. But brands need to live their purpose and put things into practice in everything they do. Misleading your audience or worse – spreading actual misinformation, will severely backfire. That's why it's worth taking the time to think before communicating about your purpose and doing the work that will minimize the risk of being labelled as a purpose washer.

Can you avoid purpose washing?

In today's world, businesses have multiple stakeholders (NGOs, supply chains, investors) with many needs and expectations to be considered. Navigating a complex system like this and making every decision fully in line with your purpose is a tricky task. So how can companies avoid purpose washing?

If you want to reach the new generation of socially conscious customers, you will need to show actual proof of how you're making a difference. A good consultant should always ask a lot of difficult questions when it comes to sustainability and responsibility communications; How is this messaging connected to your actual business operations? Have you reached any of your targets and where are you now?

Here are a few things to consider when planning purpose-driven comms:

Purpose is doing, not advertising. Treading carefully when it comes to purpose-driven ads is wise.

Showing how your purpose relates to the business strategy is a solid way to go about your purpose communications.

Retain transparency by giving regular updates on how you're progressing with your goals.

Philanthropy is great, but don't focus too much on donations or carbon offsetting, for instance. Instead, talk about the concrete ways your business is living the purpose.