Corporate Responsibility vs. Complicity: When brands begin to campaign

Pride Brand Campaigning Pink Washing

“Your company must be here for a purpose other than shareholders,” says Paul Polman, who stepped down as Unilever’s CEO in 2019. It may sound obvious, but the statement holds real power coming from one of the world’s most high-profile corporate leaders.

Speaking to the UN’s Global Opportunity Explorer for their 2019 insights report, Polman was frank about the need for more brands and CEOs to take a stand. “While trust in companies is low, the citizens of this world still see the private sector as a solution provider to many of the problems. And the CEOs that have a point of view, that speak up, are actually well appreciated,” he explained.

Polman’s position is backed up by research: studies show that Millennial consumers in particular believe CEOs have a responsibility to take a stand on sustainability, and a majority gladly pay more for ethical brands. During Polman’s decade at Unilever – where he made sustainability a central focus of the business model – the company generated a 300% shareholder return (double the market rate), and in 2017, the sustainable products in the conglomerate’s portfolio represented 70% of its growth.

The marriage of business and sustainability is hardly a new concept, and many innovators paved the way: the late Dame Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, was a pioneer of ethical consumerism, while founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, has been a life-long environmental activist, whose philosophies permeate the company at every level – to name but two.

But while their approach once seemed like revolutionary counter-culture, in an increasingly politicised world that is finally waking up to the threat of climate change, as well as the need for human rights protection, Polman’s call to arms sounds like plain common sense. 

This ‘trend’ extends to the world of media and advertising, too. Having grown significantly over the past few years, cause-driven marketing now seems headed for a tipping point. 

At this year’s Cannes Lions, several big brands were recognised with some of the highest honours for their purpose-driven campaigns. According to Shots, Nike’s Dream Crazy, fronted by former NFA star and activist Colin Kaepernick, was highlighted as an example of a brand taking a stand they had never taken before, and maintaining that stand in the face of opposition; while Libresse / Bodyform’s Viva La Vulva was chosen for “killing a 3,000-year-old taboo”.

But there are risks and pitfalls to corporate activism, too. Brands that are serious about doing good must be aware that there is a delicate balance between elevating a cause to amplify its message, and quashing its purpose in the noise.

Samir Patel at More About Advertising notes, for example, that Amnesty International named Colin Kaepernick as its Ambassador of Conscience (its most prestigious human rights award, previously given to Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai) three months before Nike’s iconic campaign launched. Yet most people only associate one of these two brands with him.

Reuben Turner at GOOD Agency cautions that, when taken to an extreme, brands seeking to be part of a cultural conversation risk extracting value from it until it becomes not just meaningless, but problematic. For example, while many activists welcome corporates signalling their support for LGBTQIA+ rights by visibly supporting initiatives around Pride month, there has been rightful backlash to ‘pink-washing,’ as activists call on those brands to follow through on their virtue-signalling by hiring more LGBTQIA+ employees, or speaking out against bigotry directly.

Corporate brands wield immense power – and with this comes great responsibility. Those who are genuine about wanting to do good have the potential to elevate causes and movements to a whole new level. If they go about it with sensitivity, we can all benefit from their influence.

I’d like to give a special shout-out to Paul de Gregorio, whose weekly newsletter, ‘Do Something. Anything.’ inspired this article, and provided several of the source articles. Highly recommend subscribing for a regular dose of inspiration.

Author: Fiona Koch, Account Planner / Director, Raw London

Tweet me @fijinsky

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