How Do You Talk About Purpose Without Getting Canceled?

A growing number of consumers around the world are beginning to expect nothing but the best from brands, inspiring stronger accountability and purpose-driven practices. However, these expectations have also triggered the beginning of cancel culture, with many brands facing backlash from watchdogs, consumers, and activists for doing something as harmless as stating their impact goals.

H&M’s Conscious Collection claims that at least 50% of each clothing piece is made from sustainable materials like organic cotton or recycled polyester. The brand’s attempt to take a step towards sustainability was met with global retaliation and backlash from the very start. Even Maisie Williams, the face of H&M’s Sustainability Initiative, was heavily criticized for promoting the brand’s efforts. Instances like these have become too commonplace around the world with more and more brands being condemned for daring to do better.

A growing number of consumers around the world are beginning to expect nothing but the best from brands, inspiring stronger accountability and purpose-driven practices. However, these expectations have also triggered the beginning of cancel culture, with many brands facing backlash from watchdogs, consumers, and activists for doing something as harmless as stating their impact goals. Even progress made by companies is often dismissed as ‘too little, too late making it increasingly challenging for them to conduct purposeful business despite their growing interest in it.  

These precarious circumstances demand brands, both small and large, to fundamentally rethink their approach towards creating environmental and social impact. In this article, I will provide actionable tips and frameworks that help your business pursue purpose in today’s ever-changing market landscape. Let’s dive in.

Map Out Your Brand’s Holistic Impact Philosophy

In a cut-throat environment where brands are fighting tooth and nail to distinguish themselves and connect with their customers, engaging in a few isolated events of social or environmental stewardship won’t help you win them over. Funding a one-time sustainability initiative or donating to charities once every two years is no longer enough. If anything, insincere efforts will only draw criticism from your consumers who can accurately sense the lack of a unifying soul and purpose in efforts that are disjointed and disconnected from each other.

Having a concrete vision for the future can make all the difference, and it all begins with defining your brand’s philosophy and impact theory of change. A brand philosophy is a set of values, code of ethics, and principles that define the culture of your organization, whereas your theory of change is defining your unique narrative around key issues that your brand cares about. Defining these fundamentals is needed if you want to run your brand with purpose. For example, the business activities of Tentree: a Canada-based tree-planting brand that sells apparel, is driven by the desire to create a better planet for everyone. Their theory of change reflects in their actions, as is demonstrated by their commitment to go above and beyond planting ten trees for every item sold by the brand. Acknowledging that their journey does not begin or end with planting trees, Tentree is constantly innovating to create apparel with the smallest possible footprint to create more circular supply chains.

If you’re a brand founder, look inwards to introspect on why you chose to start the business in the first place. In addition, focus on team participation and align your employees with your company’s ethos as it can help create a strong internal culture where your employees promote and add value to your impact mission. Pursuing purpose-driven initiatives without also gearing your culture towards impact can be your undoing, as it was for Everlane – a seemingly purpose-driven US-based clothing brand that lost its credibility after suffering backlash from its disgruntled employees who accused the company of directionless company policies, racism, and favoritism.

Finally, be bold and be humble in crafting your brand’s philosophy and theory of change. Being bold is not the same as recklessly committing to purpose-driven targets that you cannot achieve. Your consumers are not expecting you to single-handedly solve all the problems in the world. You need to be practical about how you choose your brand’s theory of change. Cover as many issues as you can, while laser-focusing on one or two interconnected social or environmental issues that align the best for your brand. After defining your philosophy, set and work towards achieving concrete goals. Most importantly, pursue certifications and initiatives only if it resonates with your broader theory of change.

Show Vulnerability and Practice Radical Transparency

For the longest time, brands have tried to portray a ‘perfect’ image of their brand, cherry-picking stories and promoting a narrative that they think their consumers want to hear about. This is where they’re going wrong. Consumers do not demand perfection, they want to see progress. They want to know that you have gotten from A to B, not Z. They want to know the behind-the-scenes. They want to find out the ‘why’ for that certification you acquired or understand why their favorite brand chose the path of plastic neutrality, forest conservation, or net-zero carbon offsets.

In the meanwhile, growing concern over society and the environment is leaving consumers on edge. They are beginning to believe that you are not doing enough or that you are overstating your impact, even if it is untrue. One-sided storytelling is making the situation even worse, leading to a growing disconnect between brands and their customers.

The solution to winning back your customers’ trust lies in being vulnerable with them. Showing vulnerability demands that you demonstrate to your customers that you are aware of your flaws and that you are actively working towards correcting them. And here’s the thing. You can only be vulnerable with your customers when you’re being honest and transparent with them. In fact, the need of the day is to be radically transparent.

You might think that radical transparency is about revealing every aspect of your business without filters. Instead, radical transparency is about showcasing your imperfections as much as your perfections. It’s about revealing what actually happens on the inside. For example, Hershey’s is living up to its No New Deforestation Commitment and transparently communicating the progress they have made to consumers with the help of Sourcemap, a supply chain visualization software that found that Hershey’s overall contribution to deforestation lies in the low single-digit percentage. Hershey’s was able to win over customer trust by showcasing its sincere commitment to tackling the issue of deforestation by being radically transparent about their process despite its imperfections.

Actively Engage Customers and Stakeholders to Co-Create Your Impact

The truth is, a vast majority of brands engage in marketing activities that talk ‘at’ their customers, instead of talking ‘with’ them. They brag about their achievements and future plan of action without considering what their customers expect from them. Differentiating your brand from others through purpose requires that you listen to your customers. You need to understand their psyche and be in sync with their ever-changing expectations. To achieve this, you need to build a community of purpose-driven consumers and create safe spaces where you can co-create your brand’s purpose without fear of judgment or dismissal.

Building a community with your consumers means creating opportunities for two-way communication where there’s participation and engagement from both the brand and their customers. By using social media polls, story updates, or marketing campaigns, you can get customer engagement in the form of shares, comments, tags, and user-generated content. Additionally, you can invite your customers into a Slack community or a periodic Zoom call to interact with them and address their queries, thus clearing the air of suspicion and building positive emotions amongst your most loyal advocates.  

For example, for rePurpose Global’s 2021 Oceans Week Campaign, we collaborated with AB InBev and Corona to engage customers from across the globe through impact creation and advocacy. A dedicated microsite was created in order to give Corona’s customers and community members the exclusive opportunity to offset their plastic footprint by supporting innovators tackling ocean plastic across 3 continents. Not only did it amplify Corona’s own pioneering net-zero plastic footprint announcement, but it also helped mobilize consumers across the world to take action and engage with the brand.  

Another way brands can engage in two-way communications can be through pre-competitive collaborations. Work with your closest competitors to identify areas of common struggle and solutions. “In the fight for our planet, we are not competitors, but allies” was the philosophy that governed the WE ARE ALLIES Campaign: a pre-competitive collaboration where five competing beauty and personal care brands united to tackle the plastic waste crisis. Similarly, Grove Collaborative’s Plastic Working Group, a collaboration of 75+ brands, has created a safe space for thought leadership, sharing best practices, and finding plastic-free solutions for a sustainable and circular future. Both are inspirational examples of what can be achieved if brands put their differences aside to achieve common goals that are purpose-driven and good for the society and environment.

Final Thoughts

No purpose-driven initiative is without risk. Nothing will go exactly as you planned, which is why vulnerability is so important. You need to treat purpose as an ever adaptable, rapidly iterative journey that you can go out with to your customers and stakeholders, however imperfect it may be.

At the end of the day, doing or talking ‘purpose’ without being canceled is all about understanding the consumer psyche. Don’t assume that your customers will go easy on you – they will expect you to be purpose-driven and do good on your commitments. As the faultlines in our society and planet continue to deepen, they will expect you to get more and more involved in activities that help create a better world, and you should listen to their expectations and try to meet them.

Having discussed the many strategies around purposeful business, we understand that you might feel a bit overwhelmed and simply need to have a conversation with those who are in the know. Feel free to reach out to our purpose experts at rePurpose Global – we are just one email away!

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