For brands, substance trumps story when it comes to doing good

If Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was the noughties buzzword in sustainable business, the last few years have been dominated by talk of social purpose. Indeed, CSR gradually slipped out of fashion, and the term ‘greenwashing’ emerged to describe the practice of doing good simply to atone for any corporate ‘sins’.

In its place, social purpose has stepped into the breach. This the idea that doing good should be integral to the business – the brand, product or both – and not simply a bolt on. A good idea in theory, and indeed one that has driven the emergence of wholly new models of business, like community interest companies here in the UK. Consumers see companies as having the scale and clout to make a difference, sometimes even more than resource-constrained organisations in the not-for-profit sector, and brands recognise they can differentiate from competitors by doing good.

And yet, more recently, talk of ‘purpose washing’ has replaced greenwashing as a stick to beat some brands. The charge: that companies have talked of purpose without really acting upon it. That they’ve told shiny stories of good intentions but nothing has really changed. You don’t have to look far for companies telling social purpose stories with little substance beneath. Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner disaster earlier this year was one of the more highly publicised examples, but we’ve seen it before – from the likes of Starbucks encouraging baristas to start a conversation about race, to Burger King reaching out to McDonald’s to create a burger for World Peace Day.

These are isolated incidents, but there are wider forces at play, as companies adopt lofty purpose ambitions which claim to be doing good, with little beneath. In some ways, it is the ambitions of social purpose that have allowed this to happen – talking at the level of a whole company’s purposeful intent has enabled the obscuring of what’s actually being done… or more to the point what’s not.

And yet, there are encouraging reasons to think we may be able to buck this trend. In the era of fake news, consumers are growing tired of dishonesty in all areas of public life. In developed markets like the UK people have a sophisticated understanding of capitalism; we’ve seen in numerous focus groups that while people believe brands should make a positive contribution, most concede that companies exist primarily to make money. People expect brands to be doing good, but not necessarily oriented wholly towards this goal. In short, for the most part people grudgingly accept that corporate good happens within the capitalist context; it doesn’t replace it.

Of course, many brands – from Dove to Patagonia – are both communicating and executing a genuine social purpose that runs through their brands with consistency and depth. But in a world where so many continue to suffer, if the theoretical choice is between a company talking purpose with no impact, or delivering impact but not embracing the language and codes of brand social purpose, there is clearly merit to the latter.

As such, the heat may be somewhat off companies to adopt and advertise a holistic social purpose. More important is actually making a difference, whether through social purpose, CSR, corporate philanthropy or another way entirely. Interestingly in this regard, the top 10 UK corporate givers list is filled with traditionally “unglamorous” brands; their giving may be motivated by a range of factors, more or less wholesome, but the potential impact of their spending is significant.

Our message then? Any brand or company can have a positive impact; all have a contribution they can unlock. Indeed, as a UN spokesperson said last year: “In order to implement the sustainable development agenda, all available resources need to be mobilized in addition to the public financing. I think we need policy guidance that will encourage the private sectors and the companies to come on board and support.”

Doing good should not be the domain of only those companies who are confident enough to put a snazzy “social purpose” front and centre. In fact, we believe that starting with impact first is not just best for the world, but – as consumers and media become more attuned to ‘purpose washing’ – ultimately better for the brand too.

To find out more about the Humankind Research ImPaCt model for corporates who want to make a positive contribution, email

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