What is purpose wash? How can you avoid it?

Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.

Alan Jope, Unilever CEO at Cannes Lions 2019

One factor is the motivation for developing a purpose – is the motivation primarily to improve brand, reputation or employee engagement, or is there a genuine desire to have a more positive impact on the world?

Talking about purpose is undoubtedly popular, but, underlying the coverage and the ongoing discussion is a growing level of cynicism about the way purpose is being adopted. A fear that purpose-wash will be potentially damaging especially at a time when setting and pursuing a purpose beyond profit is gaining traction with regulators, investors and the public.

So be very alive to the potential that in developing a purpose statement there is a danger that it can quickly become a corporate communications exercise. To counteract this, consider the following:

  • Continue to draw awareness of the danger of purpose becoming a communications exercise with the leadership team and cultivate ownership and accountability to avoid purpose-wash
  • Play devil’s advocate, challenge the leadership team if they outsource the hard work of becoming purpose-led to the communication team or an outside agency
  • Engage with the marketing and corporate communications team and ask them “How best do we avoid purpose-wash?”
  • Constantly check that the purpose remains authentic and practical and that it informs core business strategy and decision making. Engage early with those people/teams in the business who have a key role in setting the strategy to consider how the purpose (once articulated) can direct and shape the core business model and the strategy. What products and services are provided, to whom and how? And how the commitment to become a purpose-led business may change how strategy is developed and executed. For more on this see: Purpose-led Strategy
  • Ensure that the purpose goes beyond lofty words but that it actually helps to address perceived ‘ills’ caused or contributed to by the business – if the purpose does not guide the business towards addressing these ills, scepticism is likely. For a discussion of how the Blueprint Principles were designed to address 10 toxic ills see: The Blueprint Principles – An overview 
  • An organisation’s purpose must derive from the ecosystem that the business inhabits — the full diversity of employees and stakeholders – it is, therefore, important to engage with a range of stakeholders in developing the purpose, otherwise, even if you land on a great set of words, it will lack legitimacy.
  • Engage the organisation and your stakeholders in the question “How do we avoid purpose-wash? What would need to be true for you to believe in our intention to become purpose-led?”
  • Welcome and encourage dialogue and scrutiny of the alignment between the stated purpose and actual performance. Don’t silence your critics. For more on this see: The importance of dialogue 
  • Challenge the business about the distinction between ‘having a purpose’ and being ‘purpose-led’. Organisations can craft a purpose statement without the mindset change about people and the quality of relationships it seeks to have. Being purpose-led in Blueprint’s thinking is about all the relationships in the Five Principles, whether or not the purpose statement explicitly refers to them
  • Invite the question “How can we fail?”

For more see: Is your purpose fit for purpose?