Cause for Alarm
Deceitful marketing is an unfortunate reality in today’s competitive landscape. One of its modern expressions is a practice known as causewashing. We dug into this growing practice, traced its history, and developed guidelines for identifying it. This led us to a deeper understanding of how it can damage a brand’s reputation, and how you can communicate your authentic support of a cause—an important marketing differentiator. In this article, we’ll cover the dangers of causewashing, how to identify whether or not you’re participating in it unknowingly, and how to make your authentic cause stand out amongst the growing sea of causes.
A New Realization
Chances are you’ve heard the term “Greenwashing.” Greenwashing is a false claim where companies use seemingly environmentally friendly practices to improve their image when they’re actually harming the environment and/or their activities are primarily intended to benefit their bottom line. Some organizations spend more on advertising their green benefits than they do on reducing their environmental impact.
The term “greenwash” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. He became curious about a tent card in his hotel room encouraging him to hang up his towel until he needed it to be washed. The card suggested that this would reduce water use and therefore benefit the environment. After looking into this practice in the hotel industry, he concluded that the true motivation was increasing hotel profits through using less water.
Clap For Joy
One of the most well-known acts of greenwashing was performed in 1990 by DuPont. They worked with worldwide advertising agency BBDO to produce a commercial that showed animals applauding, leaping, and flying to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Voiceover informs the viewer that Dupont ordered safer, double-hulled oil tankers in order to “...safeguard the environment.” This from a company that, according to Fair.org, the EPA listed as the number one emitter of toxins in 1994.
It’s clear to see that this greenwashing effort was aimed at improving DuPont’s environmental reputation while it continued its pattern of environmental destruction. As Jamie Murray, director of DuPont’s Corporate Brands, put it, “It increased DuPont’s favorability as a good citizen–we moved the needle.” Their hope, of course, was that this perception would encourage people to buy their products, ignore their environmental impact, and increase profits.
From Greenwashing to Causewashing
Over 25 years after DuPont’s clapping video, profit-driven brands have shifted with the times, supporting causes and practicing cause-marketing as a way to attract new customers and tap into the millennial market. Spotting these activities takes a little detective work.
Here are some telltale signs that a company is practicing causewashing:
- Difficult to Verify: Does the stated cause imply something, only to fall short of its promise upon closer inspection?
- Self-Serving: Is the effort ultimately aimed at improving the image and/or sales of the company?
- No proof of impact: Can the impact of the stated cause be proven with real data and/or stories of success?
- Vague: Are the claims unclear or dubious? Is it difficult to decipher what’s actually being accomplished?