Everything you need to know about purpose washing

Shaun H. Ruff



We all know the drill – marketing loves to jump on the latest ‘societal’ bandwagon, only to put little to no weight behind its words. At Ignite London, we’ll be speaking about the state of purpose washing in B2B based on what your peers are saying. Here’s an inside look at what you can expect at our session.

I’m Vanessa Cheal, B2B brand strategist and head of brand services at Transmission EMEA. My role is to help our clients build successful, stand-out B2B brands in an honest, emotional, and entertaining way to drive stronger levels of brand awareness, consideration, and engagement across the customer journey.

At Transmission, we do this through a clear, robust brand building architecture that encompasses research insights, strategy, proposition, creative and content, omnichannel media activation, tracking, and measurement – all in a single, unified service offering.

What we’ll be speaking about at Ignite

Our session at Ignite London is titled: ‘Don’t fake it. Make it. How to build a better world with honesty, not hype.’ In it, we’ll talk around the insightful findings from Transmission’s global research report, ‘The State of B2B Brand Building 2022’ – focusing on the revelation that over half of UK-based B2B marketing leaders admit to promoting misleading, unverified ‘force for good’ messages through their brand marketing.

As part of our research, we surveyed 500 CMOs and B2B marketing leaders (VPs/Directors/Heads of Marketing and Brand) across North America, Europe, and APAC working in organisations of all sizes and industry sectors to understand:

  • The performance of B2B brands against a range of brand health indicators i.e., trust, differentiation, compassion, customer-centricity
  • The relationship between brand building and the boardroom
  • The risks and realities of building a purpose-driven brand
  • The role of employee insights in brand building
  • The key challenges and barriers to brand building success
  • Top brand building priorities for the year ahead

To bring context to our worrying findings, we’ll explore why B2B marketers feel under increased pressure to ‘purpose wash’ and debate whether it’s acceptable for brands to take a stance on societal issues for commercial gain.

Piers Newson-Smith, director of brand strategy and planning UKI at EY will also be on hand to share valuable lessons and advice regarding how CMOs and marketing leaders can help build genuinely powerful, purpose-driven brands that build trust with clients and stakeholders[1] .

So, what is purpose washing?

Purpose washing is when a business says it has a meaningful, cause-based purpose and uses its brand, campaigns, PR strategy, or people to promote that message – without actually backing it up with genuine action. For instance, brands that are misleading or misrepresenting themselves as being environmentally friendly without doing the hard work to ensure the company itself is sustainable.

Today, brand transparency and brand trust are beyond critical for any business looking to attract and retain customers and employees. When the purpose promise doesn’t match the purpose experience, there is a huge risk that the business will be deemed disingenuous and deceitful.

What inauthenticity looks like

I don’t think it’s obvious enough when brands are simply washing values, especially to the untrained eye. When a large, well-respected, multi-national tech or professional services brand is communicating with B2B buyers, there is a natural assumption that they are being truthful and sincere.

Their products or services are recognised throughout the industry, so why would you question the authenticity of their LGBTQ+ messages, for example. But there are signs to look out for though. The first is a lack of proof – what evidence are they giving to back up their purpose claims? Is the brand part of a reliable certification scheme or does it have a third-party endorsement to show the claim has been independently verified?

Secondly, look out for how they represent their purpose visually. Are they displaying overused and familiar stock images of trees, blue skies, or flowers to portray sustainability? Or every shade of green under the sun in their communications to demonstrate how eco-friendly they are?

Lastly, check out the blogs, keynotes, and other corporate comms from their leadership team. Brands who live and breathe by their purpose will advocate it clearly and consistently though their CEO’s or CFO’s profile in the industry.

The pressure is on for organisations to address societal issues

Our research revealed that 76% of B2B brands today feel ‘some’ to ‘a lot of pressure and expectation’ from their target audiences to take an active stance of societal issues.

When asked about the extent to which their brand champions a caused-based purpose for commercial versus societal gain, we found that only a tiny 9% of all the B2B marketing leaders surveyed said they did so for purely compassionate and ethical reasons. This tells us that 91% of B2B brands feel their purpose should result in some form of positive business outcome.

More worryingly, when we investigated the topic of purpose washing further, we learned that 56% of B2B marketing leaders admitted that their brand was ‘somewhat’ or ‘highly likely’ to be promoting misleading cause-based messages or claims without verification.

Some of the actionable knowledge you’ll leave Ignite London with

Our brand research was predominately created to assess the current state of the B2B brand building industry. We wanted to get a sense of how brands are performing today, what’s working, and where the concerns and development areas lie. And we looked to do it in a way that provided real, comparable data to B2B marketing and brand leaders looking for more relevant perspectives when making brand building decisions or developing brand building plans.

Our session is geared towards all B2B marketing and brand leaders accountable for brand success in their organisation. We welcome anyone who is passionate about B2B brand marketing and keen to learn the risks, realities, and lessons-learned from industry peers currently implementing a brand-focused programme or campaign. 


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