People are motivated by purpose, and when workers feel motivated, business is good. This is why, more and more often, businesses are looking to be purpose-driven, and to market that purpose as a fundamental pillar of the brand, as well as a fundamental part of the customer experience. This has quickly become a profitable practice, but that can be just as bad as it can be good. Whenever profit gets involved, principles can get muddled.
Zach Mercurio, author of The Invisible Leader, writes about exactly this last point. He uses the example of “greenwashing,” where many businesses saw the profitable opportunity of presenting themselves as “sustainable,” but many failed to actually meet those promises internally—or at all. In the same manner, when businesses make promises about brand purpose and fall short intentionally or otherwise, Zach calls it “why-washing.” Of course, finding and committing to an authentic purpose is a great practice, but doing so superficially can be costly and damage your brand image. Avoiding superficial messaging can sometimes be easier said than done, which is why Zach provides the “5 Sins of Why-Washing” to check and see if your brand is authentically committed to its driving purpose:
1: “Purposeful Branding Without Purposeful Behavior”
One of the most blatant and perhaps most common examples of why-washing is when principles are left at the door—or, more specifically, on marketing material. When committing to an authentic purpose, this is something that has to be felt internally across the entire organization, as well. We call this brand-wide alignment.
If we leave our principles at the door, marketing might be bringing in more business, but the internal conditions of the brand are going to be unstable. Not only are workers not going to feel the motivating force of a truly authentic purpose in their workplace, but the discrepancy between external perception and internal conditions can lead to employee disillusionment at the very least, and can escalate to costly and potentially career-damaging or ending scandals. Authentic purpose needs to be authentic first and foremost. Otherwise, you’re practically begging for a PR fiasco.
2: “Recruiting for Purpose but Managing for Results”
A big part of company-wide alignment means that your commitment to purpose is reflected in everything that you do, and in practically everything that you consider. This includes who you hire and, more importantly, how you manage them afterwards.
Once again, purpose is powerful for marketing, and that’s just as true for workers as it is for customers. Customers want to spend their money at a place they don’t feel guilty about supporting and, better yet, at a place they believe in. Similarly, money by itself is not enough for workers to commit to a workplace. A legitimate commitment to purpose and transparency is becoming more and more important for a thriving workplace each and every day. Hiring and recruiting people with the promise of purpose, and maybe even with the “intention” of purpose, but then falling back on a management style or philosophy that only serves to chase profit and growth, is another quick path to disillusionment and broken promises.
3: “Dropping Purpose When Times Get Tough”
The thing about principles is that they are meant to serve as a foundation—immovable. When it comes to authentic purpose, that should be the reason the brand and organization exists in the first place at all. Profit, of course, is important in surviving a profit-incentive-run world, but failing to commit to the principle “when times get tough” means that your authentic purpose wasn’t much of a foundation after all.
If your authentic purpose is truly the reason your brand exists at all, it must be non-negotiable at all times. If it’s something you can take a break from while you chase a bit of revenue, then workers and customers alike are going to get the idea that your purpose is more of an empty promise—and they might be right. Making sure your immovable principles are in fact immovable is how you certify that they are authentic, and that practice can pay off.
4: “Focusing on White-Collar Purpose”
As with company-wide alignment, purpose cannot just apply to a few people at the brand, especially if those aren’t the people doing the heavy lifting. Brand image and brand vision are far too often doomed to be limited only to the white-collar workers of the company when, in reality, most US workers are the lower wage employees doing the heavy lifting.
An authentic purpose implemented across the company must be present and felt across the entire company, not just in the office space with special experience and benefits for the white-collar workers. The pandemic brought the low-wage service worker into the light as both essential and fundamental to how everything works in the country and in the world. A commitment to purpose must do the same, and not just superficially.
5: “No Proof”
Finally, and arguably the amalgamation of all of the previous points: the sin of no proof. Even if you’ve somehow managed to have strong “purposeful” branding and marketing, and you’ve somehow achieved an “purposeful” internal workplace culture—what happens if you’ve got nothing to show for it? What will investors say? What happens when somebody eventually stumbles upon the question: where’s the proof?
Being in the progress stage towards building proof is one thing, but if you genuinely have a purpose-driven brand with no proof of purpose beyond branding and promotional material, there’s something missing in your organization. Maybe you’re missing an important link to put principle into practice, or maybe the proof is there, but you don’t have the right metrics to measure it—whatever the case might be, having something to show for your commitment is ultimately the only way to know that your purpose is authentic at all. Paying careful attention to avoiding each of these 5 sins is paramount to making sure you and your brand are standing strong for what you believe in, and that your team and your customers will feel the same way. After all, the proof is in the pudding.
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