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All Washed Out - Can Brands Embrace Good Causes With Facing 'Wokewash' Accusations?

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From confronting racial injustice to accelerating progress towards a net-zero world, there is no shortage of good and worthy causes that brands can align themselves with and many are doing just that. But aligning social messaging with commercial purpose can be a tricky thing to get right and marketers may well face accusations of "wokewash" from some quarters while also triggering a backlash from those who don't buy into the premise behind the campaign. So with the COP26 climate summit on the horizon - an opportunity for brands to display their green credentials -what are the pitfalls of putting a societal issue at the heart of company messaging and how can they be avoided?

It's tempting to be cynical about the alignment between brands and their chosen social causes but, equally,it's hard to argue with initiatives that do something practical in support of an objective that has widespread public support. For instance, last month Change Please - a London-based coffee company that trains homeless people to work as baristas announced a partnership with HSBC, Colgate and Mastercard. Over the next few months, a "Driving for Change" bus will take services such as healthcare and dentistry out to homeless people on the streets. The sponsoring brands are not only advertising on the bus but also playing a material role in providing dentistry, access to banking facilities, and IT skills tuition.

As Change Please founder Cemal Ezel explained to me when the initiative was launched there was acertainly marketing opportunity. ,,Who doesn't want to advertise on the side of a London bus?," he asked. At the same time, there was the potential to change lives.

More controversial are campaigns that seek simply to change hearts and minds. For instance, chocolate brand Maltesers recently ran a campaign - dubbed The Massive Overshare - aimed at highlighting post-natal mental health problems. Supporters would say the campaign helped to break the taboo surrounding depression among new mothers. Critics argued it had nothing to do with Maltersers' core purpose - which to put it bluntly - is selling sweets.

Dr Steve Harrison - celebrated copywriter, one-time agency owner and author of Can't Sell Won't Sell: advertising, politics and culture wars - is one of the critics. In his well-received new book, he argues that advertising - either to build a brand or move product off the shelves - is ultimately about selling. Advertisers have forgotten the commercial purpose, he says. Instead, they are pursuing a social agenda that doesn't necessarily resonate with a large swathe of target customers.

An Effectiveness Crisis?
As Dr Harrison sees it, there is an effectiveness crisis in the industry, particularly in terms of the prestigious films that tend to win Cannes Lions awards. He cites the results when market research company, System 1 put the winners of the 2021 Cannes Film awards through its ad effectiveness test. ,,The average score was 2.1 out of 5.0. That's less effective than an average bog-standard TV ad," he says. ,,Big agencies - network agencies are purpose-led because they are divorced from the commercial reality.''

There is, of course, an alternative view. When a brand like Nike addresses racial injustice in sport or Gillette tackles toxic masculinity they are addressing younger consumers who - statistically speaking - tend to be more socially liberal and engaged in issues such as diversity, inclusivity and the climate emergency than their older counterparts.

And climate change is set to be a key theme over the next few months in the runup to the COP26 summit at which world leaders, NGOs and activists will gather in a bid to hammer out ways to speed the reduction of carbon emissions. With the climate taking centre stage we can expect brands to be aligning strongly with the green/sustainability agenda. But flying a green flag has its perils. To take one example, household products manufacturer Reckitt signed up as a sponsor for COP26, with a brief to provide the hygiene protocols but was quickly attacked by environment activists for its utilisation of palm oil, a product linked to deforestation. It's by no means the first company - and probably not the last - to face accusations of greenwash.

The Authenticity Challenge
Kim Walker has worked brand-side for Mars Chocolate and Barcardi Global and is currently strategy partner at creative agency, Harbour Collective. She stresses the importance of authenticity. ,,If why you're doing it isn't authentic to your brand's values, what you stand for and your brand's typical behaviours, a cynical and savvy audience will see what you're doing a mile off," she says. ,,And if your brand stands to gain more from the activity than the cause itself, you best expect a backlash that will probably garner more attention than your initial activity ever did."

Charlie Brunyate, Director of Marketing at marketing agency, Mineral Digital Agrees. His agency has put sustainability at the heart of its offer to clients and often that means helping them define and clarify what they were doing already in terms of sustainability. He warns against using "purpose" as a marketing tool, if the supporting facts don't stack up. ,,If you claim to have purpose and you claim to be sustainable and you are actually not operating in that way, you will be found out," he says. It's a principle that applies to major brands and to small companies alike. If the marketing collateral majors on, say, care for the environment, that has to be reflected in a whole range of policies and practices. ,,Brands have to look at their supply chains and their value chains," says Brunyate.

Any claims made about individual products should also pass the smell test. This is something that Will Pearson and Nick Doman - founders of Ocean Bottle were very aware of. Essentially, the company offers a reusable drinking bottle at a premium price. The pitch to the consumer is not simply that a reusable bottle is environmentally friendly in itself, but also that the company uses part of its profits to pay for the collection and recycling of plastic bottles washed up on beaches in the developing world.

It's a claim that has to be backed up with facts. The collection is made in partnership with Plastic Bank - which pays local people to collect plastic while tracking the process on a blockchain ledger. As a result, Ocean Bottle can publish regularly updated stats on its website, backing the marketing claims. For the sale of every bottle, 1,000 plastic bottles are currently being collected."We agreed from the start that we would hold ourselves accountable," says Doman.

Ringing True
The messaging itself also has to ring true. ,,Brands should learn from the ones who get it so wrong because they are inauthentic. "Remember Kendall Jenner's ridiculous attempt to diffuse a riot with a Pepsi can? Or the pointless M&S LGBT sandwich?" says Walker. And as Amelia Boothman, Director of Brand and Strategy at branding agency 1HQ points out, the message itself - whatever it might be - shouldn't be a turn-off. ,,It's important to make it very simple and clear - not using strange percentages that consumers don't understand about .31kg footprint etc," she says.,,Consumers don't understand off-setting vs. re-setting and become confused about carbon capture versus. planting trees. Consumers just want to know that companies are doing everything they can to make their product do no harm to the planet and ideally give something back."

But a question remains over the effectiveness of cause-led messaging. If a brand is supporting Pride or backing environmental projects simply as a good deed in an otherwise wicked world, there is perhaps no problem - assuming the message squares with its practices. If, however, there is a parallel ambition to align with and sell to idealistic consumers, then it's not clear whether activism or a strong message on social issues equate with sales. Charlie Bunyate thinks it does, with millennials and members of Generation Z, in particular, declaring a preference to buy from companies that pursue sustainability. ,,Profit and purpose are no longer mutually exclusive," he says.

Dr Harrison is not convinced. While acknowledging that avowedly green brands, such as Patagonia, are aligned with their customers' values, he argues that most customers buy because of value for money, the quality of the product and what it will do for them rather than the company's stance on social issues. "Self-interest will triumph over altruism every time," he says.

That may or may not be true, but brands that are aligning with a cause should ensure the stance they take matches their own policies and practices while also taking care with the messaging. 

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