Markus Gull

Brandstory: Is Mean-Washing the New Green-Washing?

During a meeting with a potential consulting client a few weeks ago, I was almost knocked off my sofa: An entrepreneur who has been successful for decades, open and quick-witted, a courageous, lightning-quick decision-maker, has a mega-innovative, sensational project at the start, which offers all the potential to be successful worldwide. Successful because it addresses a rapidly growing problem in our - against all odds - society called civilisation and can substantially improve the living conditions of countless people. It is obvious that something like this also offers enormous economic potential. And then I hear the sentence: "I don't want to improve the world, I want to do business".


At Blogcast I'll read you this recent blog article. With emphasis, of course!

And already you can see the whiteness on the knuckles of my fingers, which cling to the upholstery of the sofa so that I don't slap the marble in a deep protective anaesthesia activated by my mental defence system. New incisors cost a fortune these days!

The sentence "I don't want to improve the world, I want to do business. in the light of our times means nothing other than: "I haven't understood the purpose of my own business; and I haven't understood that the world has fundamentally changed".

In my many years in classical advertising, when I heard bold, holistically conceived campaign ideas that, for a change, did not put price-off on the pedestal of higher brand consecration as a promise of salvation, but rather activated strong, relevant brand stories, I repeatedly heard sentences like "We don't want to die in beauty!", or "Do you really think we'll make even a single euro more in sales with this?" Back then I often thought I was in the wrong film, until one day I finally realised: I was in the wrong life. In the meantime, the wrong life has turned into the right one.

Markets are fast, smart conversations.

Not least because of all the fundamental changes triggered by the WorldWideWeb, people's perception of companies and brands and the relationship they want to have with them are completely different than they were just a few years ago. This is wonderfully described in the two editions (1999 and 2014) of the Cluetrain Manifesto and therefore adorned with my strong reading recommendation.

In short, markets have turned into conversations that cannot be manipulated by brands and companies, no matter how persistently they try and come roaring at them from all channels. Real people decide faster, smarter and more directly than any company could when to talk (= always), where to talk (= everywhere) and what to talk about: about concerns relevant to these real people. Aaagh!

To put it even shorter: That companies still have control over their communication or image is a pious hope, and pious hope in this case only stands as a placeholder for illusion.

Two pieces of good news at this point:
1) People still want to form relationships with companies and brands, but only good, serious, yes: relevant relationships. And they want much more. More on this later.
2) Companies and brands should not only participate in this conversation, they can even initiate, inspire, moderate and enable it.

If this is done skilfully and with good sense, then there is a clear answer to the question: "Do you really believe that this will increase our turnover by even a single euro?": "I not only believe that, I know that!"

Attention! The buzzword mafia is in the village!

By the way, I'm not the only one who knows this; it's now the talk of the town in the global village, and a new sow is now being herded through this very village, on which some simpleton has smeared Brand Purpose. Brand Purpose is the new hype and is also offered under The Why or Meaning.

In the slipstream of the driven poor sow, the piglets called mindfulness and resonance are panting through the dark alleys. Appreciation is still warming up, but will soon hear the starting shot; or at least the echo of that catch shot that tore a juicy wound into the battered flesh of agility and disruption ...

The problem with buzzwords - storytelling is one of them - has several facets.

  1. Buzzwords soon get on the nerves of everyone who is buzzed with them.
  2. Buzzwords are mostly used by those who have no idea what it's really all about, but just to be on the safe side, make a nasal noise about it. By the way, you can often recognise these people by the fact that they start 75-90 per cent of their sentences completely incoherently with a precisely doofily timed, delayed "Exactly!
  3. The buzzword mafia devalues these principally important, correct, sensible measures to such an extent that those who seriously want to work with them can hardly do so any more, because they are swallowed up by the silliness vortex and because no one wants to go around the world as a registered total egg.
  4. Great inspirers like Simon Sinek(Golden Circle | Start with Why) will soon have to pay copyright to the buzzword gurglers for their own ideas. In any case, their idea has long since ceased to be theirs because not only manners and decency but also source citation apparently flew over the Bermuda Triangle once too often.
  5. Today's fashion lies mercilessly in the Has-been-Corner tomorrow and is no longer worn for that reason alone. Even if it would still be outstandingly good.
  6. Once again, no one is helped, everyone has learned nothing, but at least in large quantities.

Is the Brand Purepose boom a gag?

They say that a social trend that arrives in marketing is over, but experience shows that what is always true is not always true. I think the search for brand purpose and meaning has good reasons and has grown in the zeitgeist, which has long been calibrated for upheaval and paradigm shifts.

Because more and more people are realising that something is fundamentally wrong in our consumerist-driven over-muchification, in our economic order trimmed to over-consumption, a massive counter-longing is emerging. The good Zukunftsinstitut (Institute for the Future) knows about this and in particular about the Global Generation: "The anaesthesia through consumption is coming to an end. More and faster are no longer criteria for measuring progress, but simpler and better.

The LOHAS trend(Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability), which was still a buzzword a few years ago and was one of the reasons why organic became so widespread, has long been firmly rooted in the middle of society and is in danger of becoming the sack that is trotted out when people want to bash the bobo donkey.

Thus, on the new path to improved status, Search for Meaning is now at the top of the "Popular Destinations" list of the social navigator.

So: Purpose, Meaning, Why.

The corresponding shelves in the special interest sections of bookstores and newspaper shops are groaning under the weight of suitable advice on offer, online course platforms such as Mindvalley are attracting huge communities, as are events in the inspiration night and thought refuelling format.

What various studies on these topics have been showing for years has also long been recognised by companies: Brands that give meaning, have a cause and a point of view perform better economically than others. This applies to parameters as diverse as KPIs, stock market performance and the fact that what an employer stands for is the number one decision criterion for job offers. No, not the salary.

Unilever saw years ago that Dove and Ben & Jerry's, the two Meaningful Brands in house, were growing twice as fast as the other brands and launched a Purpose programme for the entire Unilever brand portfoliounder then marketing chief Keith Weed.

If you still can't believe it, then ask Laurence D. Fink: The founder and CEO of the world's largest investment fund, BlackRock, wrote an open letter to business in January 2018, the core message of which he repeated a year later: "Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. ... Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose ..." - We can be sure that Larry Fink did not suddenly grow a heart over the Christmas holidays from drinking so much vanilla tea. But who, if not he, knows damn well where and how money will be made in the future?

So, from now on it's going to smell if we don't watch out like hell, isn't it?

companies continue to run the company.

I am firmly convinced that the companies, the entrepreneurs - all entrepreneurial people who say "We are doing something!" have an incredibly great opportunity for success that comes from an even greater responsibility.

After all, politics, especially politicians, have been playing hooky for years, sniffing the vapour of the masses, then tweaking their framings and narratives and doing the popular thing so that they personally succeed, almost everything that means positive change comes from so-called civil society, and there again often from the business community, where problems are recognised in principle and solved with offers that bring about change.

Not only positive change, of course; let's not put velvet in our own eyes! For example, the plastic waste comes from somewhere. Among other things, it once contained Unilever products of the Dove brand.

This new social reality has also long been recognised by those who were once human beings and then turned into end consumers, customer numbers, Nielsen numbers and finally into data sets and now report back to companies as human beings with a pretty clear question: "Hello, are you still there?" - Companies that know a relevant answer to that question look good. If that answer is honest, then they are also good.

Research shows that people do recognise this, and even demand it - and, as you can see, the products and services that go with it. A large proportion of people say they expect companies to actively take the lead in social development because they can do it better than politicians and governments, that CEOs should take the lead because the chance of success is greater. People also say that they don't want to be pushed by brands to do something, they want to be won over to something. Push, which has worked well for many years, has had its day once and for all; pull is the order of the day and offers the best opportunities.

Purpose can be honest and still be business.

Once again, we are not talking about social romanticism with the acute risk of being confused with charity, but about real business, only good and meaningful.

The story of companies in general and the story of many entrepreneurs in particular is transforming and they with their new task. Almost every company will transform into a content company. Some of their content can be bought, driven around in, dressed in or eaten.

As in the Upper Austrian company Neuburg, the producer of upper-class liver cheese ... (Damn, now it happened to me after all, because: "Never say liver cheese to him", to Neuburger!). There they worked for years on the development of a meat-free alternative in organic, with Austrian ingredients, free of additives and hidden tricks, and now, with a huge investment under the brand name Hermann and now, with a huge investment, they have four different products on the market that are causing euphoric enthusiasm. Apart from the fact that the Hermann productsfrom the Austrian Mühlviertel already outperform the celebrated stock market stars Beyond Meat in terms of quality , if you look at the incredible ingredient list of the Superburger and consider whether it wouldn't be smarter from a nutritional point of view to eat the pack - Hermann & Thomas Neuburger have a real concern.

They, the fourth generation meat producers, want to make it easy for people to eat less meat. Because everyone knows that excessive meat consumption is one of the main evils for planet Earth (= us earthlings), even if not everyone admits it. That is why they recently launched the initiative I mind my fooda platform for like-minded people, which will become a contact point for all those who feel they belong to this lifestyle, because we do not buy products, but what we want to be. I don't want to be a meat loaf, but a bit of Hermann and Mindful comes across quite well in terms of status. That's what I'm talking about, that's what I share ...

Brand Purpose

When it comes to Purpose and Meaning, it's all about attitude and a lifestyle, as you can study quite extensively with brands like Patagonia can be studied quite extensively. This begins again with a founding dream, that of Yvon Chouinard, and manifests itself inwardly via the products and corporate culture to Patagonia 's social commitment in a thoroughly combative manner.

Brand Purpose

Again and again I point to one of my favourite examples in this context in joyful recognition: Always #likeagirl. This project from Procter & Gamble has been running since 2014.

The brand has set itself the goal of boosting girls' self-confidence, which often ratchets down to an all-time low, especially during puberty, and not just leave it at pep commercials and strong messages. P&G is doing the right thing and taking real initiatives in different subject areas.

Brand Purpose

For example, the topic of menstruation is still so massively tabooed in many countries that young girls stay away from school because of it and thus end up in a downward dynamic in their entire education and for their later advancement, all the way to poverty.

With educational work and the support of teachers, communities and the girls themselves, Always is doing real pioneering work here as well as making valuable contributions to solving social problems and has for years been providing a prime example of important meaningful commitment by a brand with the - quite desirable - positive economic side effects for the company.

Hands off marked Purpose cards!

Because we humans are just Saubartln, there's hardly anything whose dirty side doesn't attract us like a sweet little deer to the folk rock'n'roller, on which we immediately pounce with a greedy "Hulapalu" on our lips in a plump desire for desecration.

After we have already damaged corporate social responsibility with green-washing, it would be a laugh if we didn't also knock this nonsense to the surface from Purpose & Meaning. Mean-washing - the instrumentalisation of social concerns for stupid advertising campaigns.

One of the most striking examples of this evil practice came two years ago from Pepsi, with an unspeakable piece of commercials featuring Kendall Jenner, a model in the Kardashian clan. The film tackled the issue of "riots" and scorched it on every conceivable level. It drew such a well-deserved shitstorm that Pepsi had to withdraw the film after a few days. I wrote a blog post about it back then, which also contains some valuable tips for your own work.

  1. Find the Purpose from the genetic (≠ generic) values of the brand.
  2. The theme must activate an essential core value of the brand, something worth fighting for.
  3. The brand purpose must be an authentic concern for the company. Would you also stand up for it without it bringing any advertising benefit to your brand?
  4. A brand purpose must contribute to the benefit of the audience.
  5. The audience must be activated and not remain passive observers. In this way, they become an integral part of the brand purpose.
  6. The message must be T-shirt capable, i.e. both the message and the wording must be able to be communicated in a concentrated manner.

Welcome to Generation Why, everyone.

Millennials, Generation X, Y, Z, Generation Global, Generation Greta - the truth is that an ageless generation is (re)awakening: Generation Why. People who want to aggressively question or at least sense the meaning in their own lives and behind things and align their life model accordingly. Work-life balance is such an orientation, even if it is often built on the idea of no-work balance and on the confusion of freedom with free time.

But so be it. - I'd still rather the students skip school on Friday because of the climate crisis than the politicians skip their jobs because of the climate crisis ...

Generation Why orients their lives, their behaviour and their decisions, and very often also their purchasing decisions, according to a purpose, a meaning, according to the why. Thus, the task of brand communication is consistently transformed from proclamation to meaning management.

After many decades of successfully jumping on trends, the reflexive temptation is enormous to jump on the mean-washing treading board and vigorously grab where the greedy paws definitely have no business at all, because at best they see the seeds of failure there and then reap the deserved noise of defeat.

This already starts with the misleading claims of products. Just the other day I had a bag of lettuce from Spar in Vienna that read "Made in Austria" in large letters, of course with red-white-red trim. Everyone expects to find lettuce from Austria - what else? - and takes it because we buy domestic products, for all the reasons we know.

It contained lettuce from somewhere, which was put into the bag in Austria. Legally in the purest order, but also pure misleading and nothing else. A misery, especially from a company that can't praise itself enough for being Austrian. This is mean-washing and above all disgraceful, deceitful and simply wrong.

Brand Purpose and Meaning have rightly become the focus of companies and brands. By all means do it! But please do it authentically, seriously and not as a publicity stunt.

This can be effective, to the benefit of all involved - including your own - provided you bring undeniable relevance to the party and don't even think about trying to manipulate anything. Not even now, when it's Christmas, the tear glands are swelling, the moral club is loose and emotions are flying low. Let your cunning spins, clever framings and clever narratives stick, or even better: erase them from your DNA. The fairy tale of the secret of success in manipulation also begins with "Once upon a time...".

Concerns, values, longings bring movement into people and people into movement. That's what Story does for and with us. That is why Story makes us strong - as people, as companies and brands, as a society. With Story we lead our lives, we lead our organisations and we lead into the future - if we find it, recognise it and share it.

Every good (brand) story shows the values for which it stands, for which you stand, stand up or stay seated like Greta on Friday. This is how meaning is created.

Regardless of whether you are a global corporation, an SME or a heroic lone fighter as an EPU: every person, every brand, every company has and needs at least one archaic value and the story it activates, around which everything revolves. If you don't have a magnetic value as a living theme, there is only one other thing left: the price.

So to all those who say, "It doesn't apply to me, and it certainly doesn't apply to my brand, because I'm there to make money!", I would like to recommend those words that my grandmother, old Story Dudette, wrote in her blood-red lipstick on the display case of Uncle Scrooge's lucky coin: "No Story. No Glory."

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