Purposeful Branding: Navigating the Fine Line Between Authenticity and Overreach

By Darryl George, Executive Creative Director and Managing Partner at krow Group

‘Purpose’ has become such a buzzword in advertising that it has almost entirely lost its power. It’s a given now that most brands have some sort of purpose, and they will communicate it in their ad campaigns – and with good reason. Consumers are increasingly looking to brands to share their values and do good in the world.

However, not all brands match their words with their actions.

It’s common now for brands to try and jump on movements in the social arena, for example – whether it’s issues around racial equality, gender equality or LGBTQ+ rights. But rather than enabling that movement or adding their support, it often feels like those brands are trying to hijack it for commercial gain. And that’s where the problems begin.

Take Pride Month. Social media gets flooded with rainbow logos and brands claiming to support the LGBTQ+ community, but how many have actually taken meaningful action to stand up for their rights in the last year? A YouGov survey in June found just 7% of people in Britain believe companies are being sincere in their support for the queer community during Pride. That’s one hell of a damning statistic.

Clearly, people can and will spot when brands overreach with their purpose campaigns and initiatives. Think about it on a human level – if someone is speaking out of character or you get a whiff that they don’t mean what they say, alarm bells are going to start ringing.

You can really damage consumer trust in your brand if you get this wrong, and trust is a massive commodity in what we do as brand-builders. It’s hard fought for and tough to win and losing it over an ill-thought-out campaign can be disastrous.

So it’s not enough to have a purpose anymore; the next frontier is authentic purpose led by meaningful action, not words.

Where do you start? First and foremost, you must look at your brand’s impact on the world, including what it produces. You have to make sure it doesn’t in any way denigrate what you’re trying to do from a social and environmental impact point of view.

With the Advertising Standards Authority now cracking down on greenwashing, it’s getting harder and harder for brands to get away with skipping this important step. Ryanair’s ad claiming it was Europe’s “lowest emissions airline” was banned for conveniently forgetting to explain that airline travel is inherently highly emissions intensive. Innocent Drinks’ ‘Little Drinks, Big Dreams’ was banned for implying that its smoothies are an environmentally friendly choice, when the brand produces over 30,000 plastic bottles an hour.

Marketers must also be mindful of what their brand means to everyday people. What role do they play in a customer’s life? Make sure the social impact you are trying to create aligns with and builds on that – don’t step where you don’t have permission to tread.

It’s not just customers brands need to consider – it’s worth considering what your employees think too. If you find alignment from within, your outside communications are more likely to reflect what your business truly stands for.

That said, sometimes you have to bring people along with you. Even in the UK, some social movements have faced a lot of public opposition – same-sex marriage, for example. Sometimes it takes leadership to push those things through; it’s important not to be beholden to limiting views.

Consider also opening up that discussion with your agency partners before deciding on a social cause. We have some really smart cookies in advertising; not having those people as part of initial discussions is a missed opportunity. You need joined-up thinking across CSR and communications to land purpose effectively.

It’s another classic example, but there’s a reason why Patagonia is always held up as an example of purpose done right. The clothing brand has consistently taken action behind the scenes to protect the environment, rejecting fast fashion by introducing repair and reuse services and ensuring a high proportion of its products are made from recycled fabrics. The business also donates considerable sums from its profits to climate crisis organisations.

Elsewhere, Tony’s Chocoloney ensures its purpose to end slavery in the chocolate industry comes through in every part of the brand, from the uneven squares in its chocolate bars to its internal and external CSR initiatives.

Creating that alignment between what you’re doing behind the scenes and what you’re doing in the world is essential. Is your brand actively changing its business from an environmental perspective? From a diversity and inclusion point of view, is it promoting minority ethnic employees into leadership roles? If not, you have to get that in order before aligning yourself with these causes.

And it’s not enough to say your business plans to have X number of Black employees by 2030. What are you doing today to improve the diversity of your business? Day-to-day action is becoming more important than lofty long-term goals.

It’s an old adage, but it’s true: actions speak louder than words. Consumers are watching the actions of brands more closely than ever, and the last thing any brand wants is to be caught being disingenuous in what they say.