Practising what you preach

Practising what you preach

17 July 2023 Off By Oscar Giacomin

An awakening of consciences is in recent years leading to a greater general awareness of environmental and social issues, such as protecting the local territory, civil rights and inequalities, etc. This phenomenon has also involved marketing, to the extent where, as we reported in this column last month when talking about brand activism, more and more companies are publicly taking a stand with their campaigns against injustices or in support of certain issues.

But when a brand exposes itself for a just cause, does it always do so honestly, driven by true conviction? Or does it act out of opportunism, ‘exploiting’ the issue to increase profits?

The latter is referred to as woke washing or brand washing, meaning issues with a high social impact are exploited purely for marketing strategies, or with the sole intention of leveraging the public’s sensitivity and values, reaching more customers (real or potential) and therefore making greater profits. For example, if a company promotes a healthy vegan diet, but is also a partner in intensive animal farms, this is woke washing.

Sub-categories of woke washing include, for example, green washing, pink washing and rainbow washing, depending on whether the issues exploited by the brand for profit are environmental, gender-related or LGBTQIA+ community-related.

In the UK, HSBC, a large bank, had to withdraw an advertising campaign last year after the country’s advertising regulator ruled it promoted a tree-planting program and its net-zero plan, but failed to acknowledge that it is also one of the world’s largest financiers of fossil fuel projects.

Woke washing has also involved automotive brands. Mercedes-Benz and BMW, for example, have carried out campaigns in which, to show solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community, have dressed their logo in the colours of the rainbow. It is a pity, however, that they have been careful not to do so in countries where there is no tolerance towards LGBTQIA+ people, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Another famous example of brand washing is L’Oréal, which a few years ago decided to eliminate terms such as ‘whitening’ or ‘lightening’ from its product labels, as a sign of sensitivity towards the Black community. However, this was purely for show, as not much earlier the French brand had cancelled partnerships with several of its testimonials because they had declared their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Riding the latest wave just to keep up with the times, make yourself heard and seen, creating a façade image that hides ‘dark sides’ to make money is a risky strategy for brands. In addition to being morally wrong, it can be counter-productive and harmful to the brand’s reputation and credibility. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that the corporate system is now much more open than in the past, and thanks also to the attention of the ever-alert media, lies and secrets are harder to keep under wraps. And when they do emerge, they have significant costs and consequences.

There is a thin line between brand activism and woke washing. To prevent sincere activism from being perceived as opportunistic and thus becoming a boomerang that backfires on the company, certain precautions need to be adopted:

  1. Communicate and support only what you truly believe in and that is consistent with the brand’s history, values and mission;
  2. Put words alongside facts: many complaints about woke washing arise due to the inconsistency between what the brand declares and its actions;
  3. Carefully evaluate the reputational risks of brand activism: if you support a certain issue (whatever it is), always keep in mind that you risk dissatisfying, or perhaps losing, some of your customers who might think differently. It is therefore necessary to be prepared and willing to accept this possibility;

Invest in crisis management, to have a strategy ready for managing problems such as those described in point 3.     

Oscar Giacomin  / General Manager, Facto Edizioni

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