Socially conscious brands: smelling like roses or creating a stink?

By Alex Goldup, Associate Director, The PR Office, 

Before I get started, I need to declare an interest: I worked at Lush many years ago, when I was a student in the fine city of Norwich, fielding (with steely, infinite patience) endless questions from customers along the lines of ‘how can you stand the smell’ (answer: with great difficulty) and ‘does standing near all that soap give you a headache?’ (answer: no, but hearing the same question for the umpteenth time in one week just might!). Nostalgia aside, it’s fair to say that it’s latest marketing campaign hasn’t gone entirely as planned – unless of course the plan all along was for vociferous, negative reaction from the likes of the Home Secretary and the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

There are questions around the execution of the campaign – of which more in a moment – but the episode has once again raised wider questions about when and how brands should speak up on social issues. There are those who say that businesses should stick to the business of selling; that any attempt to weigh in on hot topics that seemingly lie outside their business interests will be seen opportunistic salesmanship.

That is too simple and doesn’t chime with what we know about consumer preferences and behaviour. Research by Edelman tells us that more than half of consumers buy or boycott products because of a brand’s stance on political or social issues. Staying silent and remaining above the fray in the age of #MeToo and climate change might seem like the safe option, but the data does suggest that there is an opportunity for brands to build relationships and deepen engagement by finding appropriate opportunities to signal their corporate values.

The rewards are there but so, as we have seen over the weekend, are the pitfalls. How can businesses that stick their heads above the parapet escape fire?

Brand consistency is surely important. A business that has spent years assiduously building brand identity based in no small part on campaigning, philanthropy and ethical business practices is more able to take a well thought-through stand without the obvious risk of backlash. On the other hand, sudden and abrupt diversions into hot button social issues from brands that have not laid the necessary groundwork are more likely to be met with the cynicism that they perhaps deserve.

However, in the case of this most recent episode, brand consistency was not the issue – execution was. Lush, to its credit, has a long history as a campaigning business and has not been afraid to take a stand on issues including same-sex marriage and there is no reason to suppose that the convictions and principles of its management team are not deeply held. However, even without questioning the motives, some fault surely lies with the execution. As others have commented, the imagery and messaging – ‘paid to lie’ – was clumsy, crude and appeared at-a-glance (which is normally all that most pieces of marketing material are given!) to tar all police with the same brush, even though the firm subsequently stressed on social media that the campaign was ‘not about the real police work done by those front line officers that support the public every day’.

We should know better than to rush to judgement and it’s too early to declare this a cautionary tale – although judging by the comments on its Facebook page, even some of Lush’s more loyal fans seem taken aback by the execution of this most recent campaign. One thing is certain – the age of the socially conscious brand is not going to go away and businesses are going to have to use all the nous and expertise (including, please, their PR people at an early stage) to avoid raising a stink and instead come out smelling of roses.

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