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Brands as social activists. Good or bad?



Recent advertising campaigns from Pepsi and Heineken have sparked a huge amount of debate on the role of brands as social activists or champions. Pepsi’s offering featuring Kendall Jenner was widely panned and quickly pulled. Heineken’s “Worlds Apart” ad has received positive acclaim and has been heralded as the antidote to the Pepsi fail.

The Heineken ad is part of a wider campaign from Heineken (UK) called "Open Your World", promoting openness as a value that helps break through the barriers that divide us. To inspire as many people as possible to take action in real life, Heineken have partnered with The Human Library, a unique not-for-profit organisation that uses conversation to challenge stereotypes.

In contrast to the mostly positive commentary about the Heineken ad, some critics have suggested that consumers are being duped for liking the ad. Their argument is that Heineken are just trying to sell their brand and are packaging it up as social activism. The critics suggest that this is manipulative and consumers shouldn’t be so stupid as to be taken in by it.

At the root of this argument is an opinion that I’ve heard some people voice; that brands have no place in social activism or marketing their social contribution because a) their intentions are to profit out of it; and b) they’re not genuinely committed to the cause.

Intent and authenticity in marketing

Essentially this argument is about intent and authenticity. It’s an argument I’ve given a lot of thought to, given my business specialises in cause marketing solutions for brands.

Let’s break this down and examine it more closely.

The first point – that brands shouldn’t seek to profit out of their social contribution efforts.

This isn’t new. Heineken and Pepsi are not trailblazers here. Brands have been doing this for years, some with incredible success.

P&G’s Pampers nappies program in partnership with Unicef, 1 pack = 1 vaccine is a great example. This program invites consumers to buy Pampers with the promise that for every marked pack purchased, one vaccine will be funded to fight against Maternal and Neo-natal Tetanus (MNT).

The Pampers program started in 2006 in United Kingdom after a test 2 years earlier in Belgium. Initially it was launched as a campaign to drive sales during the Christmas period. Back then, MNT was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths of babies and mothers in developing countries. Some statistics highlighted that every four minutes, a baby was dying from MNT. Today, largely as a result of the marketing program which was rolled out globally, Pampers and Unicef have come close to their goal of eradicating MNT from the globe.

That is a real, tangible social result. A result driven by Pamper’s marketing efforts, which were also successful in raising awareness of a disease that had been largely forgotten.

Commercially, the Pampers Unicef program has also been incredibly successful. It enabled the brand to stand for something in the minds of it’s consumers and it has driven increased sales, over an 11 year period and across multiple global markets.

A win-win-win

Successful programs like this deliver a win-win-win: a win for society, a win for business and a win for the consumer who feels good about their purchase.

With all of those wins, you have to question exactly how that can that be a bad thing?

Let’s now examine the second point: that brands like Heineken are not genuine in their desire to deliver social impact. They don’t give a rats, so long as they sell more beer.

Authenticity in cause, purpose or social impact marketing is one of the fundamental rules of establishing a successful campaign or program. But how do you define authenticity?

Is it about the cause being a credible fit for the brand? Absolutely. Without that alignment, your campaign is likely to be doomed to failure as per the recent Pepsi ad.

Or is authenticity, as some say, about a genuine desire for the brand to create positive social impact, regardless of profits?

There are businesses that put purpose ahead of profit. Brands like Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, whose commitment to the environment includes an ongoing donation of 1% of sales or 10% of profits to grassroots environmental causes. Patagonia have also invested in making their products more sustainable; and they encourage (and enable) people to repair their clothes before they think of buying new clothes.

A great local Australian example of a genuine purpose-led brand is Zambrero, the “Mexican with a Mission” quick service restaurant franchise and humanitarian enterprise, that is committed to tackling world hunger through its Plate 4 Plate initiative.

These businesses and others provide inspiration for other ‘for-profit’ businesses and social enterprises. While these examples are commendable, I do believe we need to be realistic in how we judge authenticity, as not every business is in a position to prioritise purpose over profit.

Going back to the Pampers example, P&G’s motivations – at least initially – were commercial. I don’t doubt that the team involved with the campaign at its inception was also motivated to deliver a campaign that created positive social impact. BUT – and it’s a big but – commercial impact (sales) was the number one priority. Naturally. It was a marketing campaign. If it didn’t deliver commercial success, it would have been pulled. However, thanks to the success of the campaign – Pampers found a powerful social purpose that the business rallied behind.

I’ll never forget a speech I heard from a P&G marketer in Chicago in 2012. I was there for a global conference on cause marketing. Procter & Gamble had received an award and the speaker was talking about the Pampers Unicef program. She said one of the company’s biggest challenges was maintaining the focus on their 1 pack = 1 vaccine program. She highlighted that the program had achieved commercial results well beyond their expectations. I’m pretty sure my memory serves me correctly that she stated it was the most successful campaign P&G had run. Nonetheless, new marketers often came in wanting to do ditch the old and do something new.

At the conference, the speaker said with heartfelt emotion and conviction, that P&G would not stop until MNT had been eradicated from the globe.

I know I wasn’t the only one in the audience with goose bumps. This was a marketer who was committed to their brand creating social impact on an audacious global scale. Today the program continues and I believe they are within striking distance of their goal. Remarkable.

Commercial success enables brands to make a sustainable commitment to a cause

The fact is, it was the commercial success of the program, which enabled this marketer and her colleagues to become emotionally invested in the cause. They started with profit in mind and along the way became champions for the cause. What’s more, they had permission to be emotionally invested, because of the commercial success of the program.

The Pampers program exemplifies that cause marketing or social activism can be a good starting point on the path to a brand adopting a social purpose and creating genuine impact. Authenticity is fundamental, but let’s not shoot brands for prioritising commercial success.

I can’t help thinking that some of the people who are critical of this type of activity can probably afford to sit on their high pedestals, passing judgement on what constitutes acceptable marketing. I doubt that they themselves are in desperate need of housing/food/healthcare/tolerance/money and a whole raft of other things. I wonder if they’d be so judgemental if they were the ones in desperate need of help.

We need 21st century solutions

For my part, I believe we need to keep our eye on the bigger picture. We need to move toward 21st century solutions for the challenges we face in our societies today.

Society needs solutions. Globally, our governments appear to be less and less capable of delivering many of these much-needed solutions. Meanwhile individuals are looking for ways to help, but are limited in what they can do.

Business can help and can play a defining role. I believe the traditional and passive CSR model for business (the one based on a company’s ‘responsibility’ to society), is starting to be replaced by a more sustainable model. Brands actively collaborating with consumers to deliver social impact on a grand scale, while at the same time driving brand growth.

Marketing dollars being invested into delivering positive social outcomes. Brands doing well by doing good. Business becoming active in providing solutions to society’s problems and enabling consumer collaboration.

That’s got to be a good thing.

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Carolyn Butler-Madden is the founder and CEO of Sunday Lunch | a brand consultancy specialising in cause, community and purpose-led marketing

For more information, please get in touch or visit sundaylunch.com.au.

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