John Harrington
Mar 19, 2020

Will the coronavirus sort truly purposeful brands from the 'purpose-washers'?

At some point in the future, I can imagine consumers asking brands that market themselves as 'purposeful': what did YOU do in the great COVID-19 outbreak?

Will the coronavirus sort truly purposeful brands from the 'purpose-washers'?

It's noticeable, and heartening, how few brands and corporations have launched bad-taste or ill-judged campaigns off the back of the pandemic (although there are always exceptions).

But I think this misses the point a little.

The trouble with purpose marketing is that it's very easy to do on a superficial level.

Adding a rainbow to your logo to show support for the LGBT+ community takes no effort. Refusing to operate in countries where homosexuality is illegal represents sacrifice – prioritising ethics over business.

Those that embrace the former but ignore the latter are left open to accusations of 'woke-washing' or 'purpose-washing'.

It's easier said than done, of course, but in the current crisis, every organisation that markets itself with a wider purpose should consider doing more of the stuff that goes beyond gestures and directly helps people in need.

We're seeing some great case studies of this – Iceland, Lidl and, more recently, Sainsbury's, promising to allow elderly and vulnerable customers only into their shops for the first hour or two of trading, for example.

The idea was floated on social media prior to the supermarkets announcing their policies. This gives an impression of the companies listening to the mood of customers and the country – on Twitter and Facebook, at least – and reacting accordingly.

Another example is Morrisons, which, among some other big firms, has promised to pay small suppliers immediately to help keep them afloat during the uncertainty.

Elsewhere, Louis Vuitton owner LVMH is switching to making hand sanitiser in its perfume production lines, an approach later adopted by Scottish brewer BrewDog and other drinks companies. This has echoes of AB InBev in the US shifting production to make 300,000 cans of drinking water for victims of Hurricane Florence in 2018.

Nobody expects individual companies or brands to solve this crisis. Indeed, many are undergoing torrid times themselves, and in some cases their survival is at risk.

But a large number can act to make life easier for the public and society in general. It's my hunch that those that publicly fail to do so will lose much of the goodwill created in 'normal' times around their own purpose.

To put it more strongly, in times of such a crisis, many brands and corporations that don't 'walk the walk' will be exposed as purpose-washers.

The coronavirus is the first true global catastrophe since purpose marketing began in earnest, and the crisis may end up sorting the genuinely virtuous from the virtue signallers.

John Harrington is editor of PRWeek UK


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