In both B2B and B2C, customers are increasingly choosing brands based on their purpose and the values they support.

While this social consciousness is a good thing, it's led to the rise of companies attaching themselves to certain movements and announcing purposes that are contrary to their actual actions.

An oil company claiming to be fighting climate change without taking active steps to decrease oil production? A media company putting out marketing that supports Pride Month while donating money to anti-LGBTQA political groups? Casinos talking about "responsible gambling" while offering deals designed to get customers hooked?

We've all seen it, and it's a phenomenon that Greg Ricciardi, President and CEO of branding agency, 20nine, calls "purposewashing". He joined us on CMO Convo to discuss why disingenuous brand purposes are harmful to brands, their customers, and society as a whole.

Prefer to listen? Check out Greg's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast 👇

The power of branding

Hi, Greg. Welcome to CMO Convo. How are you doing today?

I’m great. Good to be here. I appreciate it.

We appreciate you being here, Greg. We’ll be talking about a topic that's not just super relevant to our audience, but also super relevant to what's going on in the world right now. We're talking about the purpose behind the brand and how you can leverage that with authenticity.

Before we start digging into that very juicy subject, maybe you can tell us a bit about yourself and why you want to talk about this subject today.

Sure. I go back 20 years to when I started my current branding agency, 20nine. I'm a graphic designer by trade, and I've said this multiple times over the years: as creatives in the industry that we work in, we have one of the most important jobs in the world. We have the power to influence. That power can be used for good, or it can be used in negative ways, and I think we've all seen how it can be used in that fashion.

Throughout my career, I've had designers come in all excited about the prospect of building brands or influencing people, but they haven’t always truly understood the power that we have. I think we need to have a good understanding of it in order to respect it.

How we build campaigns for politicians determines who gets elected in some cases, and they determine the laws that govern us. We can influence everything from politics down to the products we buy off the shelf, the clothing we wear, and how we get from point A to point B.

We need to have respect for the power that we have, and we should try to do good with it. That’s why for the last four or five years, I've focused on purpose and how we define that, not only with our clients but with our employees and future employees.

How to define brand purpose

You published a very interesting article on the CMO Alliance recently, and that was the kickstart to this interview because there were some fascinating points about brand purpose. Let's start by defining what we mean by that. What is a brand purpose, and what do we mean by purpose-driven brands?

There's a bit of a fog around brand purpose and what it truly means. If you Google it, brand purpose is defined as the company’s reason for being and the things it stands for. The “why” is usually to do with the customers it serves and the market niche it seeks to fill.

I think over the years, the answer to the questions “Why was this company created?” and “For what purpose does it exist?” has shifted. It used to be all about benefiting the end user, and now it’s becoming more cause-focused. We’re seeing more mission-driven brands with a focus on developing platforms, processes, or products that benefit our world and our environment. However, not every single company needs to do that.

I think the concept of a brand purpose has multiple facets, not just a single definition. You can't just define brand purpose as having an ultimate impact on the world that we live in. I don't think that, because a company doesn't have an impact on the world in terms of doing good for the planet or doing good for people, that’s necessarily a bad thing. An organization’s purpose might just affect an end user.

For example, FedEx isn't changing the world in which we live. Its purpose is to deliver a product or a piece of mail within 24 hours. That's why they exist. Ironically, they do help change the world by making that accessible, but they're not saving a certain species or changing the world through their environmental practices.

We can talk more about this later, but purposewashing changes things. Companies are starting to feel they need to define their purpose in a much deeper way when it comes to, say, their impact on the planet.

For sure. It’ll be great to discuss that, particularly in light of recent news about some major companies.

When we talk about brand purpose, it's different from brand values, isn't it? Brand values are more about how a brand conducts itself and what kind of causes it supports; whereas purpose is the impact that your product or service is having. Is that what we're saying?

Yeah, but I think instilling brand purpose into your company, which gets delivered through your brand, needs to be at the core of your strategy. Purposewashing comes into play when brand purpose becomes a PR stunt rather than a part of the organization’s core strategy.

A lot of what we do at 20nine is helping organizations define their purpose internally and educate and tell that story internally. That way, it can be effectively rolled out and communicated to the environment in which that brand lives and the marketplace in which it sells.

If you don't define your brand purpose within the core of your organization, you're not truly building a brand purpose. When that strategy is at the core, your brand values, your brand behaviors, your mission, and your purpose statement are all defined from that brand purpose, and that becomes the company’s core focus. Therefore, the core strategy should define your brand purpose. Organizations often forget that.

The Purpose Spectrum
Purpose is a spectrum, and a brand’s place and fluidity on that spectrum depend on many factors. Let’s take a look at five points along this spectrum to help marketers assess where their brands fall and what that means for how they move forward in a purpose-obsessed marketing landscape.

The evolving needs of consumers and employees

Until recently, it seemed like businesses could get away with saying their purpose was just to make money. Things have changed now. Both consumers and employees expect more. Do you think something is driving that change? Is it just that the world's becoming more socially responsible, or is there something else at play here?

Well, I think COVID had a major impact on brands defining a purpose. How businesses operate, how they work with their employees – everything from the new virtual work environment to the benefits that they offer those individuals – all of that has been redefined. Expectations not only from employees but also from consumers have become heavily weighted on what an organization or a brand does for them.

It's already been repeated to death, but new generations of consumers are coming up wanting to align themselves with brands that are connected to their own purpose and what they believe in. I think that has driven a lot of brands to try to redefine their purpose and establish that with consumers. That's where it becomes a marketing play. Instead of an actual purpose at the core strategy of your organization, it becomes about how to attract more consumers.

If you look at what Unilever has done with Dove, they've grown 8% in some cases, in an incredibly crowded category. They've done it from a core strategy of raising awareness of the body and questioning what beauty truly means. That brand purpose has aligned them with consumers that have the same values. They’ve done an amazing job.

I think when other organizations and brands see that, they see a new opportunity to connect with their consumers. In some cases, it can be done right; in others, it can be a little awkward or a total failure, but I think the expectation from consumers is absolutely what's driving that. Consumers want more from their products.

Over the years, grassroots brands like Allbirds have come up through Instagram, built off doing one thing and having a sustainability aspect behind it or a way to change the world, be it small or large. That’s connected with consumers in a way that brands haven't been able to do in the past. It's less about the glossy finish on the product and more about what the products truly stand for.

Transparency and brand purpose

“What it truly stands for,” is an important thing to note. You can't get too high-minded with what brand purpose – if you do, you can look a little ridiculous.

I talked about this with Gastón Tourn. WeWork in particular had a very ridiculous, high-minded idea of what they were doing and what the purpose of the brand was, which, considering what happened with WeWork, shows that this probably isn't a good method to go with.

Yeah. I think transparency and honesty are so important when you’re defining your brand's purpose. Take Patagonia for example. Patagonia didn't start out in the business of saving the home planet. Their mission developed into that over the years, but their core strategy has been, in my opinion, more transparent and honest than most.

Patagonia was originally built for climbers. The products they’ve developed over the years are effectively designed for individuals that are in the outdoors and therefore love the environment. However, not all of their products are sustainable. Still, they’re very transparent about that, like, “Yes, this product contains certain materials that have a negative effect on the planet. We're doing everything we can to adjust that, but right now, there’s no alternative solution.”

That could be viewed as a negative, but they’ve turned it around with their policy that if the product you purchase from them is damaged or even if you tear it while you’re out climbing, you can bring it in and they’ll either repair it or give you a new one. That's how they resolve the issue of not being able to fully create a sustainable product in the world that we live in today.

If they’re not able to be fully sustainable, they are transparent about it. That’s a part of their core strategy. They're honest with consumers, and those consumers respect that and they trust it – that's why they continue to spend millions and millions and millions of dollars on this brand.

And then to give away the company to a nonprofit, to push those dollars back into the environment, fight climate change, and quite honestly save the planet, I mean, that's unheard of. It's something that I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime, but I think it got a little bit overlooked. I think it's a shame that it's not being celebrated much more.

Your micro-level brand purpose
Gastón Tourn, CMO of Appear Here, joined us again to talk about keeping your messaging and storytelling focused on human beings and how your brand impacts them. He calls this your “micro-level brand purpose” and you can read all about what we discussed below.

Companies that are doing brand purpose right

Before we start digging into the negative examples and looking at purposewashing, let's talk about some more companies that are walking the walk, so to speak. Who are you looking to as great examples at the moment, Greg?

Allbirds is a great example. That's another kind of bespoke brand that came up from a D2C model. They’ve developed a wool-based product that is sustainable, and their whole purpose is to create a product that has a positive impact on the planet. They're targeting the audience we talked about earlier – the next generation of consumers that are tied to spending money on a product that they know is going to have a positive impact. They've done a great job of it.

Stonyfield has an interesting story too. They were bought by Danone and then another massive French conglomerate. The question was put forward about why they would sell out to a major conglomerate, and the owner was like, “Well, the core of our focus is to make a great sustainable product for the consumer. If I can influence a large organization to make that change, that's a powerful thing, and I can do that through my product.”

I think that’s a really good foundation for these brands because they will get acquired. I mean, look at Seventh Generation. They were acquired by Unilever, who are continuing to build on the brand’s original purpose.

A few years ago, StrawberryFrog and Dynata came up with the Purpose Power Index, which measures the level of a brand's purpose. It’s the first of its kind. Seventh Generation is at the top of the list, and it should be. Their purpose is in their name. It's been in their strategy from the day they created the brand. They’re creating products, not for this generation, not for the next generation, but for the seventh generation down the line. That defines everything they do.

When Unilever acquired them, some people turned around and said, “Well, you got acquired by this massive conglomerate – how's that purpose going to truly live and breathe?” But the way I look at it is that Unilever buying that brand proves its power, and they can put even more power and money behind the brand, which it not have been able to provide before, and impact the world on a much bigger scale.

It's brands like that I think are truly defining where purpose is going and what purpose will mean to brands moving forward.

The problem with purposewashing

We've been quite lovey-dovey so far, talking about the good examples – let's dig into the bad examples. There’s a term that we've used a couple of times: purposewashing. What do we mean by purposewashing, and what do brands need to be aware of when it comes to that?

We define purpose as the core strategy and focus that build and define a brand. Purposewashing is – and I hate to say this because it's the world that we live in – but it's a marketing ploy. It's not the core strategy or the focus of the organization; it's a strategy to connect to a consumer. It's a marketing campaign. It's a public relations strategy. It's a social campaign. It's not rooted in who they are.

Purposewashing can take the form of simple changes to taglines and positioning that just feel a little off or above and beyond what the organization was originally built for. FedEx is a good example of this. As I said before, their purpose is to deliver a product within 24 hours, and that does have a positive impact on the world.

However, they changed their tagline and positioning to “Possibilities: What we deliver by delivering.” They're taking the idea of purpose and extending it into their tagline and claiming not just to be delivering packages but delivering possibilities every day.

It feels disingenuous, right? It's not something that I think a consumer would connect with. It just feels like fluff, and when things feel like fluff or a little lacking in a core focus that you can truly connect to, that's when you can start to identify purposewashing. Consumers are very good at identifying that.

Ford did it before. They went from “Quality is job number one,” which I think is a great tagline about producing quality products, to “Go further.” Okay, so you create vehicles that carry people from point A to point B, but it just feels a little extended above and beyond the core focus and purpose behind the product.

Mercedes gave us another example of purposewashing. When you take beautiful shots of water scenes or honeycombs from a beehive and then overlay a circle to create the Mercedes logo, you're aligning your brand with the beautiful aspects of the world that we live in. However, when your organization has a horrible track record of not really doing anything about its carbon footprint, it's very easy to see that disconnect, and consumers are all over it.

Stop the Wash did a great job of calling Mercedes out. They took that campaign and spun it differently, showing drought, lightning, and crazy weather overlaid with the circle to create the Mercedes icon. It had a very different effect in regards to how consumers see them.

It can be incredibly damaging when brands don't truly connect with, or try to disconnect themselves from, what their true purpose is and make it something more. Consumers can see that.

How to define your brand purpose

What is your approach to developing a true brand purpose? Is it based on consumer interviews? Is it based on the staff? Is it decided in a senior leadership team meeting? What’s the best process, do you think?

A lot of the work that we do upfront is external research. We look at the marketplace in which the brand lives and breathes, we look at the competitive set, and we look at influences within the industry to what positive and negative impacts are happening.

We compile that data, and then we sit down with the leadership of the organization to define why exactly the company exists. What was the purpose behind this organization being created? Where has the success been found in regards to that purpose? It comes back to Simon Sinek’s “Why.” Why does this company exist, and why should anybody give a shit about it?

Once we start to hone in on that, we look at what the organization is doing that’s rooted in that original strategy and what they’re doing that's not. From there, we work with leadership to understand what they want out of this, without making it all glossy. We want to get into the nuts and bolts and truly understand what defines that brand, how they feel about it, and the goals and opportunities that exist for that brand within the marketplace.

From there, we start to build a platform. We call it our purpose-first platform. Other organizations like StrawberryFrog – much respect for StrawberryFrog; I think they're one of the best in the space – call it movement thinking. It's the idea of defining a purpose-based platform. We start to define that, and then we build a manifesto that defines the organization and its original purpose. Finally, we look at opportunities to push that out.

It goes back to the old school of inside-out branding. You redefine the story internally so that you have true engagement and commitment to that purpose. That puts your brand purpose strategy at the core of the organization. From there, the opportunities and the positioning of the organization start to flow out.

A lot of what we do in regards to defining our purpose-first platform is identifying a triangulation. We're looking at what are the consumer needs, then we're looking at what the brand does well, and then we look at the competitive weak spots. By doing that, we can identify a white space for purpose-first positioning, where the organization can tell that story.

Your micro-level brand purpose
Gastón Tourn, CMO of Appear Here, joined us again to talk about keeping your messaging and storytelling focused on human beings and how your brand impacts them. He calls this your “micro-level brand purpose” and you can read all about what we discussed below.

The golden rules of purpose-driven branding

What are the golden rules that CMOs and marketing leaders need to be thinking about when it comes to building a purpose-driven brand?

Number one is authenticity. It's got to be authentic. That authenticity has a couple of caveats behind it. If you're truly going to be authentic, you have to build your brand purpose strategy at the center of your organization. It can't just be designed to increase your bottom-line profit. Your entire organization has to feel that purpose and get behind it. If not, you'll lose your authenticity.

The next part of that is transparency. I think you need to be incredibly transparent, not just internally, but also externally to the individuals that you're looking to connect with. If you lack transparency, it creates a bit of a black box for consumers to start to question exactly what you're doing.

The last part is that you need to truly understand your consumers and the need states in which they live and breathe, and you have to connect that with the true purpose of your organization and what your product or service delivers. If you can identify that and be authentic and transparent with that approach, then you make a true connection with that consumer.

I talked in the beginning about how we have the most important job in the world because we influence people. We do that through emotion. People make decisions about what to buy based on how they feel, so the more influence we have over people’s emotions, the more we can create advocacy for our brands. When consumers are emotionally connected to a brand and they align their own purpose to the purpose of that organization, you create long-term advocacy.

Companies like Patagonia, REI, and Seventh Generation truly are authentic and transparent with consumers. They create an emotional connection with those consumers and build long-term advocacy. That’s the ultimate holy grail behind building a true brand purpose within an organization.

Fantastic, Greg. That's a great note to end on. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us about this today.

It was a pleasure.


How are you ensuring your brand's values and purpose are consistent and right for your customers? Do you have questions or need advice? Join the conversation with a global network of CMOs and marketing leaders at the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel.