Principled campaigns in the age of social responsibility
This article was originally published by Sairah Ashman on her recurring Forbes column
Scarlett Johansson was “cancelled” for saying she should be allowed “to play any person, or any tree, or any animal” — though she argued her comments were taken out of context. Noel Gallagher was cancelled for branding Scotland a “third-world country.” Nike offended both sides of the political spectrum, first progressives by producing a shoe with the Betsy Ross flag emblazoned on its back — a flag now commandeered by Nazi groups in the US — and then Republicans for withdrawing them after the uproar.
Make no mistake, all of these examples represent errors in judgement. But once upon a time, the reactions to these incidents might have been contained to a few articles in the press and heated conversations in the pub.
For leaders of companies and brands, this can be a serious concern. In a culture where missteps lead to mob mentality, how do you handle it when it happens? Today’s 24/7 internet culture means consumers can give real-time feedback to brands that can help improve products and services, but also that getting it wrong can have serious consequences. While it’s clear consumers want brands to start standing for something, “woke washing” can be even more damaging than doing nothing at all.
So why even try to be ‘woke’?
There are two really clear business reasons your brand should stand for something. One: consumers demand it, with 88% of consumers wanting you to help them make a difference. Two: so do your employees and potential future talent. According to The Economist, 70% of business executives take social purpose into account when choosing where to work.
It’s not just a business trend — it’s human nature. We like to align ourselves with causes that make us feel good. When brands nail social purpose, it shows customers that the brand is something they can be proud to be associated with. It’s something the world’s most important brands are already aware of — for example, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and Gucci have recently announced ambitious sustainability goals.
And when it’s a success, it creates meaningfulness around a brand for a consumer: we might like to think that consumers care about all brands, but the reality is that in a world of choice, loyalty can dwindle. A well-defined sense of purpose and commitment to clear goals can separate brands from a nice-to-have into a part of consumer identity. See Patagonia—whose ethical roots mean that anyone sporting the logo can see it as a badge of honor indicating sustainable values. Nike’s controversial Colin Kaepernick campaign boosted its sales, while a later ad celebrating the women’s World Cup and the U.S. team was widely praised. Championing diversity clearly works for the brand. It is, though, held to high standards now — and isn’t immune to backlash.
How to avoid getting it wrong
So you want to make a real difference with your brand. Your concern is that you try and tap into culture and it slaps you in the face, à la Pepsi, right?
The simple answer here is that you probably will get it wrong if you try and hijack a social cause your team has no direct experience with. This is why it’s essential to take steps to make sure your teams are diverse and represent those voices — if you have members of a community as part of the decision making process, you’re less likely to misstep. For example, Fairy rebranded to Fair for Pride month. But it wasn’t an empty gesture: the company commissioned a report on LGBT+ issues to support the campaign and identified problems still faced by the community. Key team members were also LGBT+, giving the brand authority on the issue.
This leads nicely into my next point: do your research. Make use of focus groups and consumer surveys — how do people tend to react to the issue you’re focusing on? If you have an agency – what do they honestly think about how you’re intending to handle it? Consumers and professionals less close to the brand than you and your team should be encouraged to seriously check any big move towards social purpose and to ask the hard questions.
Finally, identify and admit any weak spots, too. It’s better to own an issue than to pretend it doesn’t exist and have it found out.
You got it wrong. What now?
The best of intentions can still go wrong. Nike won acclaim for its work with Colin Kaepernick — then was roundly condemned for its aforementioned racist trainer by the same audience who had praised it for Kaepernick.
If you’re seeing backlash to a social purpose campaign or announcement, the first thing you should do is consider your audience: who have you upset? What did you do that caused offence to them? I.e. if you’ve offended white supremacists — maybe you’re doing the right thing!
If it seems the voices calling against you are legitimate and are making fair points, then it’s time to listen. While you can’t capitulate on everything people react to on social, sometimes a little humility goes a long way. An example of a graceful retreat in the face of strong criticism is Kim Kardashian and Kimono after the hashtag #KimOhNo went viral in Japan, following outrage at her naming an underwear line “Kimono” — a case of serious cultural appropriation.
The damage was done in both cases — but mitigated, at least, by a willingness to listen and back down where necessary.
Authenticity is the key
There are multiple studies pointing to the positive effect of social purpose on the bottom line — and it goes without saying that no brand wants to be “cancelled” in the eyes of its audience.
All businesses should be principled, even if not all can be truly purpose-driven. In being or becoming “woke,” brands often find themselves walking a fine line between allyship and appropriation. The difference is critical. It’s no place for superficiality or absent-mindedness — it really does matter.