Carol Cone
Carol Cone

PR firms are falling over themselves, pitching their ability to develop "purpose" campaigns to help brands connect emotionally with consumers in a meaningful way.

Carol Cone, who pioneered cause marketing and CSR, now runs "Carol Cone On Purpose," which helps clients stand for something beyond profits.

She believes clients need a purpose that inspires stakeholders "to engage deeply with the organization, advocate for it, buy from it, and when needed, even defend it."

The Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity honored Cone on June 20 with two Silver Lions for its "My Special Aflac Duck" social robot and comfort companion for children who have cancer. Aflac said the program in less than a year resulted in 15 percent awareness of robot duck. One hundred percent of that group say they are more likely to insure with Aflac.

The rush for purpose, though, may result in "woke-washing," according to Unilever CEO Alan Jope.

He warned that brands may say all of the right things about making the world a better place and then fail to deliver.

Calling "purpose" the most exciting thing that he's seen in 35 years of marketing, Jope warned: "Purpose marketing is at an important crossroads. Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It's polluting purpose. It's putting in peril the very thing that offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world's issues. What's more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it's already in short supply."

Jope declared Unilever is "all in" on Purpose, and promised that the consumer giant will not work with ad agencies and PR firms that have a track record of "purpose-washing."

Going Green

One hopes that "purpose" doesn't follow the path of environmental PR, which took off in the 1970s following the first Earth Day and anti-nuclear movement.

Environmental PR was going full tilt in the late 1980s and 1990s and may have peaked with the 1993 publication of "Going Green" by E. Bruce Harrison ("The Dean of Green").

Looking for good spin, polluters jumped on the PR bandwagon, triggering cries of "greenwashing," which discredited environmental PR. The media and activists then distrusted all corporate green initiatives.

Environmental PR, which should be robust during the era of global warming, has never recovered and remains a shadow of its former self.