How to build a brand with purpose while avoiding ‘purpose washing’

—Wahn Yoon and Chris Dacyshyn of Bleublancrouge got together to explain purpose driven marketing. Yoon describes what it is not. Chris Dacyshyn describes what it is—

I recently attended a “global digital summit” for marketers that was, frankly, a bit of a horror show. Aside from the tech glitches, the artificial environment of having roundtables with no tables, and trying to meet other professionals without being able to break bread together—there was a theme that ran through the conference that excited and inspired me at first: Purpose.

All through the three days, the “P” word was used again and again by agency leaders, senior marketers and consultants. It was as though they had all caught the bug, as it were, and were spreading it around.

But the moment we entered any serious conversation on the topic, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “there was no there, there.” It was largely empty rhetoric. No one had a coherent definition of brand purpose or purpose-driven marketing. There were few case studies or examples of people doing it well or with any depth.

So where do we go from here? And why are we even talking about this?

Well let’s start by solving one problem—defining the term itself.

Back in 2003, when I helped launch a cause marketing and social responsibility practice at WPP, that word had not yet been used in marketing. Instead, we talked about “meaning”—as in, human beings are always searching for meaning behind what they do, and that applies equally to what they buy and where they spend their time.

We called it “the marketplace of meaning,” and we helped clients find the meaning behind their brand.

More recently, investment firms such as BlackRock have used the terms “contribution to society” and “bringing value to human society through your products, services and operations,” not just through philanthropy.

In fact, an increasing number of global investment firms are starting to make it mandatory that the companies in which they invest find a real purpose if they are to continue attracting investment.

But sometimes it’s easier to talk about what something is not before talking about what it is:

Purpose is not:

  • A COVID campaign that tells consumers what makes a brand relevant during the pandemic;
  • A brand campaign with soft piano music and gentle voiceover telling people “we’re here for you” and “we’re all in this together”;
  • A heritage campaign talking about your time-honoured origin story and values as a brand;
  • A corporate contribution to a cause or philanthropy (you should be doing this anyway as a good corporate citizen. It’s table stakes.)

So if that’s not purpose, then what is?  —WY


I believe a brand is purpose-led when it becomes the devoted champion of a societal belief or unmet need that is a natural extension of its own DNA.

In some ways, purpose is what a brand really should have been doing all along, besides providing a service or good.

While inventing, shaping and guiding purpose-driven platforms, such as the “Dove Self-Esteem Project,” and “Campaign for Real Beauty,” as well as Hellmann’s “Real Food Movement” and Huggies’ “No Baby Unhugged”, I have discovered that purpose is not an exact science. Nor is it for everyone. Skittles and ShamWow, for instance, will likely never be in the market for a purpose-driven campaign.

But for those brands that successfully find their purpose, there’s no going back. In fact, I’m convinced the entire world will never go back. Purpose is here to stay, because consumers have had a taste of it. And they now demand it.

Study after study has shown that brands with purposeful conviction significantly outperform their purpose-less counterparts. And yet, we often hear agencies being dismissive of purpose because it’s an overused marketing strategy. But isn’t that kind of like saying we’re going to stop focusing on profit because it’s an overused strategy? Or let’s abandon our pursuit of quality products because everyone’s doing it?

The best creative agencies can help identify purpose, bring it to the surface, shape it into something wonderful and shout it from the rooftops with conviction. But purpose can’t be entirely invented and brought to bear by an agency the way ads can. It’s up to brands to live and breathe their purpose before, and long after, the agency comes along.

When Nike did “Dream Crazy” with Colin Kaepernick, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Nike had long been supporting diversity through its athletes.

Patagonia is “in business to save our home planet,” but this isn’t something its agency pulled out of a hat. It’s something founder Yvon Chouinard has believed in all his life.

Patagonia, Nike and all successful purposeful brands recognize that they must regularly reinforce their commitment with meaningful deeds. Not just words. They also recognize it is almost impossible to walk away from their commitment because brand loyalists would feel betrayed. That’s why it’s so important to get it right.

Does purpose always have to be about social consciousness? I don’t think so. One of my favourite examples from more than 120 years ago is the Michelin Guide. A tire company not only invented the idea of travelling for pleasure (while wearing out their tires), it championed the importance of experiencing the wider world around us.

Today, virtually every talk-worthy brand that’s being born has purpose at its core. The entire world is being held accountable for its actions, and brands are no exception. It’s about time.

As a creative, it always feels good to win awards. But winning awards while helping brands make a purposeful contribution to the world feels so much better. —CD

Wahn Yoon is president of Bleublancrouge in Toronto and Chris Dacyshyn is co-executive creative director.



David Brown