The dirty world of purpose-washing
Founder of brand transformation agency OPX Studio, Frances Jackson, makes the argument that branding agencies have a crucial role to play in holding unethical, uncaring businesses to account.
In the world of branding there are many buzzwords. For a long time it was all about ‘authenticity’. Now, it’s ‘purpose’. It’s no longer enough to have a vision – businesses need a purpose that describes how they are a powerful force for good.
But surely if all those businesses claiming to benefit society were actually doing it, the world would be in a far better place. All those significant challenges that everyone’s promising to tackle would have been solved by now.
Simply having a well-articulated purpose is not enough. It can’t just be a clever line for your annual report or advertising campaign. It requires in-depth scrutiny of your business’ strategy, operations, services, products and supply chain. And that scrutiny has to result in significant change. Then it’s a purpose. Otherwise, it’s just sloganeering.
But here's the rub: aligning profit-making and commercial goals with the needs of society and the environment is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. For many years we’ve told ourselves that profits and purpose can overlap. Indeed, in the business world we have convinced ourselves and our clients that there is significant profit to be made from acting responsibly. But that’s a collective and damaging delusion that maintains the status quo and allows us all to avoid a very uncomfortable truth: when it comes to business, the need to make short- and medium-term profit will always win.
The cynical could take the view that self-regulation in the form of Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) or Equity Inclusion and Diversity (EDI) is nothing more than purpose-washing. A smokescreen of a marketing ploy designed to keep consumers and investors happy, ensuring the profits keep rolling in with only the barest attempt to change behaviour. All while the gap between CEO and employee pay increases. Energy companies make massive profits as people struggle to heat their homes. Investment banks pay lip service to sustainability. Look at it that way and it starts to feel less like cynicism, more like realism.
We cannot rely on business to regulate itself. It’s only when their behaviour becomes unprofitable through legislation – and the imposition and enforcement of taxes that directly impacts their bottom line – that there will be change at the scale and speed required. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we can change quickly when our lives depend on it. Governments swiftly brought in legislation that affected both businesses and individuals directly. It wasn’t left to individual choice or suggestions. Business and business leaders should not be more powerful than our elected representatives.
It’s a reality that we all grapple with – agencies and businesses alike. Being driven by profit and growth inevitably compromises our ability to make decisions that really benefit society and the environment. Through that lens, our very existence could be questionable. Even if we are aware and want to make the right decision, it’s difficult to say no to a less-than-ideal proposal when there are wages to be paid. And yes, I’m no stranger to this – it’s something we battle with every day.
Yet agencies have an incredibly important role to play in holding business accountable. We can ‘follow the money’ first, see where the profits are coming from, then make informed decisions on who we choose to work with. Though even then, the collective delusion rears its head once more. We want to believe what a business tells us, because we want to do meaningful work. We want our due diligence of potential clients to confirm our hopes, giving us confidence that our work for them will not overstate or overclaim. And that bias is dangerous, tempting us into stroking both our clients’ and our own egos by creating purpose statements, marketing campaigns and brands that are really only skin-deep.
So perhaps we need a new word in the branding lexicon: humility. It’s a word that often appears in organisations’ values to suggest a commitment to open-minded learning. But it’s about so much more than that. It’s about honesty, being transparent and accountable for the business’ contribution to a problem. It’s about selflessness, actively putting the lives of others ahead of individual and corporate gain. It’s the opposite of competition. I came across a great description of humility in a talk by the inspirational speaker Caroline McHugh – so I will leave you with that. They referenced the then UK Sport Chair Baroness Campbell who said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking about yourself less”.
 CEOs now get paid 320 times as much as a typical worker in the same industry, rising 1,176% since 1978, compared to a rise of 13.7% for your average worker in the same period.
 The six largest energy firms in the UK amassed £1bn in profits last year and £7bn over the last 5 years.
 The largest investment manager, with $10 trillion assets under management, recorded only $200 billion, a measly 2%, of what were loosely labelled ‘sustainable’ investments.
 Until the spring of 2022 in the UK, when we suddenly went back to a ‘do-what-you-think-is-best’ policy because Boris Johnson decided the crisis had vanished overnight.