Tempted by social justice marketing? Bear in mind these three tests for business

Never before has a simple bath bomb caused so many ripples. Brouhaha about the Lush ‘police spies’ campaign has raised significant issues of how far business organisations should use ethics and social justice campaigning as part of their reputational strategy.

The ostensible aim of the campaign is to persuade shoppers to write to the Home Secretary and lobby for changes in a public inquiry into undercover policing.

The idea of ‘company as pressure group’ is a relatively new phenomenon. As public trust in business continues to decline, some organisations have sought to put clear water between their own ethical standards and those of ‘bad capitalism’.

We have seen a lot of this in the food sector. Innocent Smoothies formed a strong link with Age UK with its Big Knit campaign and concepts like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance have brought responsible sourcing into the mainstream. Fashion too is playing its part with Patagonia and others forging a strong lifestyle brand off the back of ethical concerns.

Lush does a terrific job of differentiating itself from other brands. Its position on animal welfare ties in well with its values and selling points and, vitally, resonates strongly with its customer base.

Yet most commentators seem to agree Lush has overstepped the mark this time. (92% of respondents to a PR Week Twitter survey said so).

Not all responses have been critical – some people intimately involved in the police action have supported Lush, including a former police officer and several of the women duped into relationships. But that’s sort of the problem; they know and understand the background – most shoppers don’t.

Part of the issue therefore stems from the fact that the subtlety of the cause contrasts with the simplistic graphics in the shop window. At a glance, this could easily be perceived as a campaign against the police per se.

It may be a good campaign to support, there may be people in Lush who have been directly or indirectly affected by undercover policing (bear in mind the enquiry relates to police action which ended in 2008). But are busy shoppers really going to take the time to find out precisely what is involved? If they had been much more specific in their campaign, say by simply handing out postcards to people in store, probably people would read them and some may have acted.

But huge window displays?

And, if you are asking for an expansion of an inquiry, surely it’s not appropriate to indicate you have already made up your mind about what the outcome should be.

It is also worth asking whether Lush consulted their staff about both the cause and the tactics before launching the campaign. How many Lush personnel are the offspring or partners of police officers? Or have had a positive experience of being helped by the police?

One interesting feature is that Lush confirmed no external agency was involved in creating the campaign. External PR and marketing advice can, and should, put the caveats in place. This doesn’t always work – marketing agencies can be just as likely to get carried away with a bad idea as an in-house team – but it’s why independent PR and legal advice is always worthwhile.

The Lush controversy speaks to the heart of a wider issue, though. What are the benefits and risks of brands linking themselves to social justice causes?

Brands have recognised that the single issue nature of many pressure groups is what gives their promotions such power. But the history of brands and social justice does not present an altogether edifying spectacle.

So, what should businesses bear in mind before adopting a fashionable cause as their own? 360 integrated PR has three tests.

  1. Brands must live it before they preach it


Mcdonalds took a lot of flak when it reversed its golden arches ‘M’ as a show of support to women on International Women’s Day. A nice gesture but the message fell flat when critics pointed out how many women working for the firm earned less than minimum wage. So, lesson one is to ensure that your behaviour as a business earns you the right to speak about a particular topic. Your public image is an extension of the way a business thinks and acts.

In contrast, the Kenco coffee campaign was much better pitched. Kenco credibly communicated the way it was helping coffee growers in Honduras stay clear of gang culture because it actually was doing that, not just talking about it.

  1. Be relevant and consistent

The campaign you take up must be clear, specific and relevant to your stakeholders – customers, staff, communities.

In 2017, Skittles swapped its usual multicoloured sweets for white ones during Pride Month because “During PRIDE, only one rainbow matters”. Illustrating exactly the delicate balancing act that brands face, almost equal amounts of praise and abuse were heaped on the company.

In contrast, Pepsi’s attempt to bandwagon on Black Lives Matter, featuring an advert in which Kendall Jenner breaks off from a photo shoot to join a demo and ends up giving a policeman a Pepsi, was almost universally slated. There was no apparent connection between Pepsi and the cause and the drink seemed to be simply taking advantage of a serious issue without engaging with any of the participants.

  1. Keep a positive tone

Lush has developed a strong reputation around animal rights and its opposition to animal testing.

Much of the police spy campaign was focused on animal rights activism, so you can see the attraction. However, this latest campaign moved the brand from a positive positioning – here’s how to enjoy the best of 21st century living and not harm animals – to a negative one. Appearing to tell their customers “The police are horrible” was definitely an own goal for the brand.

In conclusion, while there will always be cynics, brands have cottoned onto the power of activism because they feel it will help them be more successful. It’s become so mainstream that the Shorty business social media awards now even have a distinctive category for social good campaign.

And if you are small, be grateful! Big corporate brand reputations are like the proverbial supertanker. It is far easier for a start-up to build a reputation around a social justice issue than for a well-known brand to earn respect when its marketing and PR have never talked about social justice before. If you are an SME, you have the opportunity to build social purpose into your DNA.

Patronage and support was once the preserve of the rich and powerful; it has always been there. Business does have a role to play in this space if they move with care and sensitivity. One thing’s for sure, the world is a better place when corporations are making a genuine difference than not, even if it is done with the bottom line in mind.

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