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Purposeful Marketing > Purpose-Washing: How To Do It Right

Fast Company predicted 2022 would bring “a great reckoning for corporate purpose.”

Employees left companies based on differing values, and consumers boycotted brands based on social stances and values.

Whether or not there’s been a true reckoning, brands face pressure to show they care about more than turning a profit. Study after study shows consumers want to know and adjust their spending based on brands’ values.

But stating values isn’t enough. Consumers won’t stand for “purpose-washing” brands (appearing committed to a social issue without actively supporting it or, worse, acting in conflict with it.)

If you’re involved in content, marketing, or communications, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. You already feel the heat.

That’s why several experts presenting in the purposeful marketing track at Content Marketing World this year recently proffered their advice on how to do purposeful marketing well in a discussion on Twitter Spaces.

Listen to the 30-minute discussion or browse the (lightly edited) highlights from the chat. (I curated these quotes from multiple sections of the discussion – use the time markers to find the conversation in the audio recording.)

Purposeful voices

CMI’s Jodi Harris hosted the discussion featuring these Content Marketing World 2022 speakers:

Karen McFarlane, CMO at LetterShop, a boutique marketing and creative agency serving Fortune 1000 companies, and co-chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion/leadership for the American Marketing Association’s Professional Chapters Council

Sydni Craig-Hart, CEO and co-founder of Smart Simple Marketing, an award-winning firm that brands rely on to help increase market share and drive engagement with small, minority- and women-owned businesses

Jacquie Chakirelis, vice president of digital strategy for Quest Digital/Great Lakes Publishing and creator of the nationally syndicated talk radio program and podcast, Family Matters Radio

What is purposeful marketing? 3 (different but related) definitions

Each panelist offered a slightly different definition, but they all agreed on one thing: It requires a commitment to thinking beyond products, services, and transactions to audiences and impacts.

Here’s the lens each speaker applies to purposeful marketing.

It’s intentional and inclusive

[4:51] Karen:  When we think about purpose, it’s about intention. Leading with purpose means leading with inclusivity and starting to ask questions about our own marketing strategies:

  • Are we purposefully or inadvertently ignoring or leaving out consumers?
  • Where are the opportunities to provide more access and opportunity for those other groups?
  • What are your company’s mission, vision, and values?
  • Why do you exist?
  • How does marketing feed into that purpose?
  • How does that purpose feed into being the voice of the customer and brand stewards?
  • How do we purposefully and intentionally lead with those attributes throughout everything we do?


It’s about helping

[5:58] Sydni:  Purposeful marketing is really about helping your audience, which includes your customers, prospective customers, referral partners, and your audience at large.

What are you helping them accomplish in their life or their business? …How are you helping them move forward? How are you helping them to achieve their goals? What is the bigger picture around your product and why does it matter to your audience?

So, when I think about purposeful marketing, I think about the bigger picture, the impact of the solution your product provides, and how that shows up in a positive way for your customers and your audience at large.

It’s about impact beyond transactions

[7:36] Jacquie:  I think of purposeful marketing as a strategy and as marketing that goes beyond the transactional. When we’re marketing purposefully, we’re able to add value not only to our business but to society at large – having that impact beyond just a transactional relationship.

Make sure your purposeful marketing is authentic, not performative

Here’s some good news: as a content marketer, you already know how to be helpful and focus on a purpose relevant to your audience, not just transactions.

But navigating the finer points of inclusion and social impact discussions requires another level of sensitivity, nuance, and some risk of negative feedback.

Here are some highlights of the advice the panelists shared to help.

Show your work

[9:01] Karen: Consumers are making demands on brands to live up to the commitments they’re making. If they’re saying their purpose is to do some good in the world or provide that value, it’s not only about doing it but how you’re doing those things. Brands now need to step up to the plate and prove what they purport to do in a meaningful way.

[19:35] It’s about standing in that purpose. For example, there’s been a lot of talk about some of the Supreme Court rulings. What’s your company’s vision regarding dealing with their employees’ rights? For instance, what is your stance on women’s rights?

Lean into the things that are the most important to you. And those customers are going to gravitate toward you. And the ones that don’t agree might not. But every customer is not for you. We all want the most customers and buyers possible, but you will retain loyalty and credibility for standing in your purpose and taking a stand on the issues that mean the most to you and your employees.

Set up a dialogue

[12:40] Sydni: We don’t do enough listening as marketers. We do a lot of talking and brainstorming and strategizing. But we don’t do nearly enough listening. I encourage my clients to really learn about their customers.

What have you personally learned about your best customer? The customer that you’ve frustrated? The prospective customer who’s on the fence – what have they shared with you about their background and needs?

This is not where you ask the user research team for data, their latest insights, and whatever they have developed. Of course, that’s very useful, and there’s absolutely a place for that. But you need to invest the time to learn about your customer.

[12:18] Another reason why listening is so powerful is that when you listen regularly and respond regularly, you create this two-way dialogue with your audience. And when you do take a stand, they already know where you lean and how you feel about certain things.

When it becomes part of your company culture, when you are committed to listening and being customer-centric, it builds trust. It also builds credibility and an understanding from your customer’s point of view. It gives you more space and freedom to stand up for what you believe in and take a stand based on your values.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to please everyone all the time – that’s not even possible, and that’s not something that any of us should even be aspiring to.

Live your truth

[24:24] Jacquie: People are already attributing values to your brand, so taking a stand is an expectation. There’s lots of research that shows consumers are expecting brands to take a stand. They want brands to take a stand. And if they’re not, they are worried about how trustworthy that brand is.

Those brand attributes are already being added to your brand. So you might as well live your truth, be upfront with it, and find ways to make a positive impact with it.

Get purposeful about purposeful marketing

These highlights scratch the surface of the conversation. Listen to the entire Twitter Spaces discussion and hear:

  • The story behind Olay’s powerful Decode the Bias campaign
  • The missed opportunity costs of ignoring inclusivity
  • The pillars that underlie all successful purpose-driven marketing efforts

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute