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Posted on:
August 18th, 2022

Are purpose-driven brands all style over substance?

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Under the pressure of heightened customer expectations, purpose-driven B2B brand building is on the rise. But are brands putting their money where their mouth is?

A focus on short-term sales activation tactics has meant that product and solution-led marketing strategies have long been how B2B organizations go to market. But with the widespread impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and a hyper-competitive marketplace, B2B brands are changing the way they position themselves.

Buyers are becoming more vocal about supporting ethical and meaningful brands, and B2B organizations are responding to the increased pressure to stand for something more than purely commercial reasons by developing their brand purpose. However, while cause-based brand building may be in vogue, our ‘State of B2B Brand Building 2022’ research report has revealed some worrying truths.

Becoming a force for good has become a business priority

Today's B2B buyers look for more from brands beyond a product or solution. They want to know that the companies they do business with are giving back to society in some way. And they want to know that they’re doing it authentically.

Amid these changing attitudes, it’s little surprise that the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that societal leadership is fast becoming a core business function. And this is having a marked effect on the attitudes of B2B brand leaders worldwide. Our research report found that three out of four B2B marketers now face intensified pressure from their target audience to build a more purpose-driven or cause-based brand.

As Millennial and Gen-Z workers continue to take up decision-making roles in B2B organizations, brands are taking active stances on societal issues to earn their buyers’ trust and consideration. As they seek to strengthen emotional connectivity and loyalty, over a third of the B2B marketing leaders we surveyed said that redefining or developing a more meaningful brand purpose was a top-six brand building priority.

Navigating purpose-washing

While B2B brands are responding to their audiences’ calls for greater purpose and more meaningful brand building, they aren’t necessarily doing it for ethical reasons. Our research shows that, for the majority of B2B organizations, adopting a cause-based brand strategy is very much aligned with business objectives.

Whether rightly or wrongly, purpose-washing plays a central role in many B2B brands. Of the 500 B2B brands we surveyed, 66% stated they champion societal causes for both commercial and ethical reasons in their drive to attract new customers, increase revenue, and gain a competitive advantage.

Though this may not be an issue in itself. If B2B brands make a genuine and honest effort to integrate purpose into their brand building strategies, buyers will likely take note of their efforts. Organizations should look to find a cause related to their brand mission and ensure it bleeds into every corner of their business – helping them engage the marketplace transparently and authentically.

The inconvenient truth

What’s cause for concern, however, is that 56% of those we surveyed admitted they are ‘highly likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ to be promoting misleading cause-based messages to customers without verification. This is exacerbated by the fact that 22% also admitted to championing societal causes for commercial gain only.

With honesty and transparency so high up on B2B customers’ brand selection criteria, misleading claims and caused-based pandering has the potential to corrode brand trust and equity. Audiences won’t hesitate to interpret purpose-washing as malicious. And the brands found to be doing just that will suffer customer and employee attrition and revenue decline.

This is especially worrying as our research has revealed that B2B marketing leaders lack the confidence to appropriately respond to brand reputation disasters. Of those surveyed, 68% admitted they manage brand experiences only ‘quite well’ or ‘not very well’ at all. Making purpose-driven brand claims may be necessary to compete in today’s cause-based marketplace. But with 36% of B2B marketing leaders placing controlling brand reputation and risk through brand experience as their top brand building concern for the year ahead, it’s clear that purpose-washing is a ticking time bomb.

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Whilst our research can’t speak for every B2B brand, it does highlight a dangerous disparity between actions and words. B2B buyers are intuitive: They notice brand behavior, they’ll research thoroughly, and listen to what current customers are saying. For a B2B organization to foster a trustworthy, purpose-driven brand, it must be honest and authentic. Without this, they risk losing the support of current and future customers. 

To learn more about the opinions, challenges, and priorities of 500 senior B2B brand marketers worldwide, download our free report here.