In a world full of the #woke, how do you create a socially-conscious brand you can be proud of?
Halloween is all about horror, so spent last month pointing out (picking on) brands’ scariest marketing moments. Now that we’ve moved into the month of Remembrance, we will continue our ode to all that is unsettling in the branding world with cause-marketing catastrophes we would much rather forget.
We live in the time of the social justice warrior. New causes continually take centre stage on our social media pages and, hopefully, also in our hearts. Being an activist who actually knows what the hell they are talking about and how to do something about it is a lot more work than the casual use of sympathetic hashtags seems to suggest. So, it serves to reason that if you don’t understand the cause you leverage for your cause-branding campaigns, you’re screwed.
For clarification’s sake: Cause-branding is a particular marketing “ploy” that centres around a social cause, typically committing to serve a function such as raising money or awareness to address it.
Millennials are the most emotionally-driven generation of buyers . More than that, they only want to buy into companies who are bulletproof against getting lambasted by the woke police. That means, if you are a brand who seemingly touts a social cause, you better make sure you articulate your position with an infallible marketing campaign that is backed by the proper policies and procedures to boot. Otherwise, one savvy social creeper can prove your walk does not stack up to your talk and, all of a sudden, your stocks may tank.
Lest you forget to back your cause branding with a legitimate sociopolitical stance & sustainable practices
Not all of the brands below officially got cancelled, but they were definitely close. From a tirade of angry social users through to an international human rights lawsuit, these companies tried to show how woke-th they are only to get proven very wrong by the power of online search & social research.
Secret Deodorant “did their part” in pissing off feminists around the planet
For no good reason, women make less money than men and, naturally, they are angry about that. Well, didn’t Secret Deodorant try to speak up on this matter of equitable pay in the worst-possible way. In 2016 and again in 2020, the stink-adjacent brand launched the “Doing her part” campaign where they feature young women getting her sweat on in preparation of asking for raises & quitting their low-paying jobs.
Cue the tagline, “Doing her part.” Cute enough, right? Wrong. What Secret failed to see is that this theme suggests it’s women’s responsibility to bridge the pay gap. Further, the ad implies that all you need to tackle the systemic parameters of patriarchy, which have created a thick ceiling of white men for the past 1,000 years, is a little sweat-proof deodorant. Lol.
That same year, Secret doubled down on their miss-the-mark messaging with an “Every Woman” campaign that pissed off basically every woman. Moral of the story, if you’re marketing to women, do not attempt to tell them what to do and do not minimize the issues that shape their everyday reality of the shotty patriarchy. They hate that.
Make it racially based conversations, but make them awkward & unproductive
Coffee is one of the best things in life. It’s energizing, it’s delicious and it gives you something to look forward to in the morning when Covid has robbed us of every other joy. Coffee is so wonderful that it’s hard to believe a well-intentioned campaign nearly soured the cups of all 100 million Starbucks goers. However, that’s exactly what happens when a bunch of white marketers decide to weigh in on the race debate without welcoming a breadth of diverse opinions to the coffee table.
When racial tensions were teetering on an all-time high, Starbucks decided to launch a “Race Together” campaign. Were they talking about three-legged races, baton relays or any other good fun run? No, they simply wanted their baristas to write “Race Together” on people’s coffee cups to get them talking about racial issues.
This may have been a good idea if they had inserted psychologists, anthropologists, human rights activists or political scientists behind the coffee bar. Sadly, this is not what they did. Alternatively, Starbucks thought they would put the impossibly heavy burden of tackling racism onto the trays of their young adult baristas – none of whom were given any additional training or tools to deal with customers’ varying beliefs on the topic.
The result? Thousands of mocking social messages. The ickiness of the campaign was so widespread even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had to comment on how poor of a venue Starbucks had chosen to create change, saying they picked the wrong place and spokespeople for their attempt at social wokeness.
The only sustainable thing about misrepresenting your environmental intentions is the backlash you’ll face after your farse is found out
To round out our commentary on the failures of mis-researched and mis-delivered cause marketing, we will look at two companies whose “green” campaigns exposed the fact that the only green they care about comes with the face of a dollar bill.
In 2019, McDonald’s tried to show the world they cared about the oceans by getting rid of plastic straws. Unfortunately though, they failed to consult environmental experts on how best to go about this. The result was that they replaced their plastic straws with non-recyclable paper ones, showing the world that while they love dolphins, they don’t give a rat’s behind about trees.
A viral protest was staged, the BBC got involved and basically McDonalds ended up looking less-than-smart and really McSad. So, eventually, they had to succumb to criticism and change their straws yet again, while simultaneously launching an international sorry for the mishap.
Our second sustainability fail & final cause-marketing mayhem contestant: Nestle & their sustainably – yet cruelly – sourced cocoa beans
In 2020, Nestle put the “oh no” in cocoa. After launching much packaging and messaging that told consumers their chocolate was sustainably sourced, most upsettingly for the company, our world’s online social mavens uncovered that the company was getting their beans through the not-so-conscientious means of child labour. The discovery that less than half of Nestle’s beans could be traced to certified farms showed the brand had totally lied when they promised to eradicate child labour from their supply chain.
The repercussions for the brand went all the way to court and they faced a class action lawsuit, featuring victims of their chocolaty child labour schemes. In response to their epic fail (and just grossly bad business), the Food & Drug Administration created and implemented labels for products that would visually identify products that come from child slavery. Talk about reaping what you sow.
The moral of these unforgettably bad marketing examples is that if you try to fool people with your cause branding – yet refuse to back it up with organizational/operational change – you are going to damage your business’s brand & bottom line.
Before your company decides to carpe le cause for your promotional program, let’s chat about what social promises you can actually fulfill. Your pals at CR Creative will support you to create messaging you can get behind and stand by, so your business can thrive AND sleep at night. Win/Win.