Could purpose-washing damage the reputation of your organisation?

Commoditising social movements in order to ‘out purpose’ the competition is something of a new trend. 

Leaders everywhere are clamoring to differentiate their companies by being more sensitive, more representative, more #MeToo - even when these social movements do not align with their own company values and culture. Having a higher purpose for your organisation seems to be the latest buzzword that companies must embrace, if they want to increase their customer loyalty, drive their performance and importantly increase their profit. And here is where the negative phrase ‘purpose-washing’ has come from. It would seem that this sudden surge in organisations plastering a ‘purpose’ onto their marketing campaigns does not come from a noble place, but instead a place of self-interest. 

Now, companies want to see themselves as leaders in tackling some of the world's most complex issues. 

“Organisations are jumping on the ‘purpose’ bandwagon to convince the world that they’re putting the planet and people before their pocket”

In recent times, the National Australia Bank (NAB) should serve as a statutory reminder that an investment in purpose can be detrimental if not properly brought to life. 

Banks can get a bad wrap for being a cold profit maximisation machine. In order to soften this image, banks across Australia have tried to wipe over any negative brand associations, with a glossy new facade in the form of a purpose ‘North Star’. Several years ago, The Commonwealth Bank of Australia stated its purpose was to improve the financial wellbeing of its customers and communities,’ while ANZ Banking Groups' stated they exist ‘to shape a world where people and communities thrive.’

But the purpose that really got my attention for all the wrong reasons, was the National Australia Bank (NAB). NAB stated in early 2018 that their new purpose was ‘to back the bold who move Australia forward’.

And I asked, isn’t the purpose of NAB to build and protect the wealth of Australia? Does ‘backing the bold’ forsake their audience and alienate the hardworking Australian who is just looking for their first mortgage. Did NAB really get their purpose right in the first instance?

NAB released the following statement ‘We know that today many people outside of the bank will be sceptical of NAB's purpose, and we understand why that might be. But we didn't write it for publication. We wrote it for ourselves.’ And, I feel that they only released this statement because of the negative backlash they received. 

The problem with ‘purpose’ is that some organisations use it as their marketing strategy rather than the core of why their business exists. If your purpose is clear and consistent with your organisations values, there will be no backlash. The backlash only exists when you get your purpose wrong. 

When the ‘purpose promise’ is disconnected from the ‘purpose experience,’ organisations are at a real risk of being accused of ‘a canny marketing campaign’ instead of having good intentions. And doing so threatens to destroy trust when it is already in short supply. 


Today, organisations know what they do (sell shower gels), some organisations even know how they do it (through clear brand differentiation, fun packaging, and a creative ad campaign), but very few know why they do what they do. 

Every organisation is created to solve a social problem. Perhaps one of the best examples of that is Unilver.

Unilever was founded on a sense of purpose in the 1890s by William Hesketh Lever. Driven by the negative socio-economic state of Victorian England, Lever created the Sunlight Soap to solve the social problem of disease that was plaguing the lower class due to poor hygiene. And so, the purpose of Unilever was to make ‘cleanliness commonplace.’ Unilever has not changed its purpose for more than 100 years. They have only recently updated it for the 21st century - not to stop people from looking and feeling good but also to give back to the community through ‘making sustainable living commonplace.’ There is a common thread for Unilever's reason to exist and subsequent purpose. And this consistency is what has driven the businesses long term value. 

“Maintaining continuity of the organisational purpose is paramount for remaining authentic and true to who you are.” 

A purpose is both the guiding north star that leads us through rivers and valleys and the sinew that holds our organisation together. A purpose tells customers and staff where the business is going. And in light of the purpose, an organisation will follow this north star and act accordingly. 

The purpose of your business is not the domain of the marketing team, just as much as it does not belong to your customers alone. The purpose of the organisation is shaped by the founder and management are simply the stewards that execute it. No one has the authority to change the purpose as it belongs to your business. It is the backbone of everything. 

It is not a marketing strategy intended to boost short term profits or a heroic statement you can make in the hopes that you will win the hearts and minds of the masses. If a business confuses its marketing with its purpose then it isn’t really purpose, its just PR. 

What does accountability in business mean?

In 2015 the G30 commissioned Oliver Wyman to produce a report regarding progress on conduct and culture in the global banking industry since the global financial crisis (Banking Conduct and Culture: A Permanent Mindset Change). The report identified key areas which required increased focus and reform — and at the top of the list was accountability. As the Banking Royal Commission in Australia showed, accountability is still very much an issue. The question that comes to mind is what does accountability actually mean — beyond the obvious notion of holding people to account for their actions? It's a question many of our clients are asking... It obviously starts with the leader — with a relentless focus on firstly being accountable for yourself and your actions, with a commitment to discovering and being the best version of yourself as a person and then as a leader. If you have a moment, I'd be very interested to know how you foster accountability in your organisation.

End of 2017 - A Message from Anthony

As we come to the end of another year, I want to give you a gift — something quite unexpected that I learned this year in two quite different, but emotionally charged events: the marriage of my daughter and the death of my mother. As I have shared this story with others, they have encouraged me to share it more widely.

Firstly, my daughter’s wedding. This was, of course, a day of great celebration. I struggled keeping it together as I walked her down the aisle, and later during my speech, being overcome with love for my (only) daughter and the woman she has become. It was a wonderful day for all involved.

Following the wedding I took a week off, expecting to need a rest after all the activity. This was the case, but an unexpected benefit that proved to be a great delight was the opportunity to ‘relive’ the happy memories as they arose and were remembered. Every day new photos emerged on Facebook, people sent random text messages … The joy of the wedding extended beyond the wedding day.

One month later my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and given a very short time to live, after enjoying a long, healthy and happy life. We had numerous opportunities in her remaining eight peaceful weeks to laugh together, cry together, and say the things that really mattered. The final weeks were a time of grace and blessing.

I realised however, that her death would hit me in unexpected ways, and so (learning from the emotional experience after my daughter’s wedding) asked Jenny — my miracle working assistant — to be ready to clear my diary for a week the moment my mother passed away, which is what she did. I wanted to be free and available to be fully present to any emotion that emerged. And they did. Grief crept up on me at the strangest moments. A thought. A memory. A phone call that would not be answered. Sometimes a sadness. An emptiness. An overwhelming grief.

I had no model for how to grieve. I have not been a close observer of how others grieve.

I have observed clients and close friends lose their loved ones. Few of them knew how to grieve.

And one death does not make one an expert.

But here’s what I learnt, and is my gift for you at Christmas.

When you have those moments of high emotion, whether celebrating a birth death or wedding, whether experiencing trauma or triumph — give yourself the gift of time. Be intentional about it. Set aside a week or more to be present to yourself and allow yourself to live in through and with the emotion. I am glad I did. You will be glad you do.

Enjoy Christmas and the New Year. Enjoy the gift that others bring you by their presence, and that others bring you by their memories.

Thank you for the gift you are to others, and to me.

Let’s do great things in the year ahead

Is your organisation a butterfly or a caterpillar?

In September, Anthony presented on human-centred leadership being the key to the 21st century at the 10th World Chambers Congress in Sydney. This event was attended by over 1,000 business leaders and chambers of commerce members from 100 countries. Anthony provided advanced insight into current research being carried out by the firm which identifies key distinctions between ‘butterfly’, i.e. purpose driven companies versus ‘caterpillar’ i.e. profit before purpose companies. Business leaders were especially intrigued by such a simple yet effective model of comparison, which is why you will want to get your hands on the Confidere Group’s whitepaper, once this becomes available.

Are you ready for the emotional economy?

The knowledge economy is dead — or at least in terminal decline — and a new and different world is emerging. Although commentators use different terms to describe the caring, sharing, experience or emotional economy there appears to be significant agreement on two things:

·  The thinking (knowledge) economy has passed its use by date

·  A feeling, or touch, economy that involves people and their relationships is emerging

(What) are you reading?

Nearly everyone says they love to read. However it seems obvious, as many commentators point out, that there is a decline in reading. And this is despite us having easy access to a greater range of material than any previous generation could have imagined. It’s certainly much more than I imagined when my teenage self visited our small town library after school.

Is technology your servant or master?

Sometimes the very technology that is meant to connect us divides us. Technology is capable of doing great things. But it doesn’t want to do great things. It doesn’t want anything.”

As Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered this year’s commencement address at MIT he reminded graduates that the technologies we create and use are — and can only be — a reflection of ourselves and of our own values.

Does it matter if you do the right thing?

Are business ethics in decline? A recent Business Insider article suggests that is the case, at least in Australia.

32% of Australians thought tougher economic conditions and increased pressure to exceed the business bottom line tempt people to make unethical decisions. 27% of respondents said they think it’s common practice to gain contracts through bribery and 31% think Australian companies are embellishing their financial records for reporting purposes. Furthermore, “17% believe it is justified to deliberately misstate a company’s financial performance to meet financial targets.”

Do narcissists make good leaders?

Margarita Mayo raises a poignant question in her Harvard Business Review article: If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists? It’s unlikely that people believe narcissists make good leaders. We understand (to use classical language) that narcissism is a vice and humility a virtue. And Mayo says the research confirms that humble leaders are better in the long run, both for a company’s morale and performance. But there is a conundrum because, often, “instead of following the lead of these unsung heroes, we appear hardwired to search for superheroes: over-glorifying leaders who exude charisma.”

Is big data killing culture?

In Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, Christian Madsbjerg analyses our societal shift away from the humanities toward science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). He suggests the sweeping nature of this shift is detrimental because “our fixation with STEM erodes our sensitivity to the nonlinear shifts that occur in all human behavior and dulls our ability to extract meaning from qualitative information.”

Are you being treated like another machine?

You are almost always ‘transacting’ with a machine today. Checking in for a flight at the terminal, buying groceries in the store, jumping on the metro, or withdrawing money from the bank rarely involves human interaction. Many businesses — and their customers — opt for self-service technologies in the belief that automation streamlines services and makes everything smooth and efficient.

Is 'humanising' the latest business fad? (I hope not)

Adam Ferrier raises a very sensible question in his Huffington Post article: If businesses are trying to ‘Humanise’, why are they doing it with robots?

“Humanising” has become an utter cliché, he says, as “banks talk about wanting to ‘humanise banking’, energy companies wanting to ‘humanise energy’, telcos wanting to ‘humanise telcos’, and of course insurance giants talk of ‘humanising insurance’.”