Responsible Business webinar: how to avoid purpose washing in content and campaigns

February 10, 2022

If we needed any proof that there are questions and a keen interest in getting purposeful content and campaigns right in the responsible business space – the number of people joining us at this particular webinar was it.

There’s growing demand for brands and businesses to be more responsible – but with that comes increased cynicism and a concern from communicators that content has to be authentic and can’t be accused of purpose-washing.

It’s why the Competition and Marketing Authority (CMA) have now launched their Green Claims Code.

And why the Advertising Standards Association have censured some brands for purpose-washing the reality of their claims of action in the sustainability space.

Around all the other questions currently swirling in the Responsible Business space – from how to embed it in organisations, to making it meaningful for customers and brands – companies are asking how to bridge the gap in trust? How do you produce perfectly pitched internal and external content and campaigns that both connect to audiences; and that crucially also ensure the reality measures up to any claims?

Verity London’s Managing Partner Debra Sobel was joined by three workplace experts to discuss. If you missed the webinar, you can catch up by watching the recording – or read this short blog for some key takeouts.


We were thrilled to welcome Nicola Matthews, UKI Head of Marketing of Tony’s Chocolonely, Greg Dawson, Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at DS Smith, and Mark Hutcheon, Director and Reputation Lead at Deloitte UK to consider the issues and suggest solutions to creating responsible business campaigns that minimise the risk of purpose washing accusations.

Avoiding the Responsible Business trap

So how do organisations avoid falling into the Responsible Business trap when delivering purposeful content and campaigns?


The panel agreed it came down to grounding campaigns in well thought out strategy and ensuring claims are substantiated – whilst also keeping it as simple as possible to cut through the complexity of the task ahead.

Mark Hutcheon had the good news.

“I’ve not seen a client motivated to talk about sustainability that wasn’t sincere.  Maybe at the beginning.  But motivation now is in line with core values and shared belief.  And they want to communicate in an authentic way.”

If genuinely believing in change is the key to avoiding purpose washing, Greg Dawson issued a note of caution :

“Companies don’t always want to do the right thing.  But this is something they now have to tackle, whilst managing risk.  Where communications become authentic is where businesses see responsible business as an opportunity. Then it becomes a credible piece of sustainability work.”

Be ready for scrutiny

Chocolonely is very much a ‘native’ purpose company, with responsible business baked into its founding values and commitments.  Surely that meant it was easier for it to avoid criticism of purpose washing in its comms?

Not always so, says Nicola Matthews.

‘Theoretically, it should be easier for us. We have a clear north star within our mission statement, and don’t have as great a tension between mission and profit as some other businesses.  But it also means we’re open to a ton of scrutiny.  The supply chain for chocolate is complicated.  Which still gives us communication challenges and risk of accusations of green-washing.  What we’re saying, and what we’re doing could still be at odds with each other, so it’s important the business initiatives align with marketing functions.  If they don’t marry up it can be challenging.  So we welcome the challenge, admit them and make sure we’re crystal clear on messaging.  It’s a more comfortable place to be’.

Nicola added that clear, simple messaging was important to pull out the key point you want your audience to focus on. They don’t need to know every aspect of your sustainability agenda.


Mark Hutcheon added the important point that you also have to know when the time is right to go public with your responsible business promises in the form of content and campaigns. ‘It’s when you’re confident enough to stand up to scrutiny; when you want to elevate your visibility.

It comes with risks. You have to keep going, past any potential bashing.  And if you’re promising change, start with your own customers and staff.  Take stories from the mechanics of your business because that’s where evidence is. So your narrative and comms aren’t just opinions’.  

Effectively telling authentic Responsible Business stories

There are best practices we can all adopt to ensure comms campaigns can be delivered confidently and successfully.  Verity London works with brands with the starting point of looking from the ‘inside out’.

No purposeful content or campaign is ever entirely separate from business strategy, its operations and other responsible business areas.   Stating intentions and goals alone isn’t enough.

There has to be a roadmap for delivery behind the shiny mission statement, which will make campaigns not only well-meaning, but ensure they also have deeper thoughts, intentions and actions behind them.  And that they feel comfortable being associated with your brand.

The panel went back to simplicity as a basis to ensure content and stories were authentic and could stand up to scrutiny.


‘Pick the issue that’s most relatable and relevant to your audience’, says Nicola Matthews.  ‘For us, it’s the supply chain, and our move towards 100% slave free chocolate production.’

Greg Dawson agreed, describing how it’s issues that are interesting, that can mobilise an audience and be easy to understand. 

DS Smith breaks these down into digestible topics to help further its brand in conversations. And everything is communicated in context, with topics that resonate to add to their sustainable credentials, such as replacing problem plastics in packaging.

Debra Sobel added that context was important too. Landing messaging at the right time, having deeper conversations to understand audiences and looking outwards for that narrative to know when and what context it will sit within.

An in-house planning formula, giving unique insight to campaigns would help this, and Mark Hutcheon also stressed the importance of a call to action where appropriate, so your audience can join in the conversation. 


But with such a big task ahead within the responsible business communication world, as always the panel came back to simplicity, and starting small. ‘A good way to start a campaign is within a community, at micro level’ said Greg Dawson. ‘Test your narrative in a small way.

It’s a genuine way of doing things and from the grass-roots up, you’ll bring people with you. Top-down sustainability messages are more difficult, but this way, you can scale and grow your story and if feels more credible.’

Evidence to execute successful creative campaigns

Success will look different for every brand, and indeed, every responsible business campaign. If you can support everything you promise in your content with evidence, it will bring authenticity. Which is why our work around strategy before production, mapping out clear goals around content planning, and into narratives and creativity bring the real impact and cut through.

So how do you assess how and when you’ve hit the mark? What are the KPIs to consider? And how do you set these against Responsible Business goals?

Nicola Matthews said that – as a challenger brand – Chocolonely didn’t look at data. Its metrics are based around test and learn. But as their campaigns get bigger, that will change.

Whilst Mark Dawson set out four key types of KPI that he thought some or all were crucial to purposeful content and campaigns.

‘Look at how you are generating conversations through communication channels. How you are influencing attitudes. Consider what outcomes you are leaning towards. And the impact on the environment, your purpose goal – and/or your sales activity. Not all campaigns need to be measured against all four of these. But it’s good to connect comms activity to tangible outcomes to increase credibility’.

For Chocolonely, reporting is also important. ‘We have a fully audited, annual sustainability report. Everything we do is published. It means we’re being really honest, so that if there is a challenge about something that isn’t going so well, we will already have the data and will have been transparent about it’.

Honesty is key

It’s OK to admit you’re not there yet. And doing so will go a long way to pre-empt any accusations of purpose washing. It’s the difference between a passionate businesses struggling to solve big, complex problems – and one that is purpose washing as a strategy of its own, so it can be seen to have a voice on responsible business. 

Within this complex communications space, all the panel’s advise and examples will help us break down the task ahead, and communicate more confidently to our audiences, knowing that we’re minimising our chance of being accused of purpose washing – and having the tools to challenge if we are.

Top Tips to avoid Purpose Washing in Content and Campaigns

–       Keep it simple. You may be doing many things across your business within the purpose sphere. You don’t have to communicate all of them as top-line campaigns, or make all of them your focus. Concentrate on the message that best aligns to your core business, and tell that story.

–       Start small. Bottom up narratives based within your community give authenticity to the work you are doing. Stories that can then be scaled up to a wider audience and broader focus.

–       Align your business. Ensure your marketing and comms function knows the reality on the ground, and how successful your business is in rolling out its purpose promises. By grounding everything you say in this reality, you’ll minimise the chances of being called out.

–       But be honest. It’s ok to be on a ‘journey’. Don’t let fear of not being perfect stop you from telling your good news stories, or announcing your responsible business goals, when you feel the time is right for you. By demonstrating the scale of the challenge ahead and grounding narratives in truth, you can robustly defend any accusations that you have over-promised

–       Base your comms on planning and context. Think about KPIs and ensure your campaigns on responsible business are as robust as any others. 

–       Ensure your responsible business narrative is relatable to your brand. The most authentic and believable purpose goals feel relevant to core business activity and goals. Bring your audience with you and set yourself on the path to sharing the social value your brand is offering.

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