It’s very, very easy to slap a cartoon tree on your packaging and hope your customers are convinced that you care about the environment. It also won’t work. If there’s one thing I cannot stress strongly enough to consumer-facing brands, it’s never to underestimate the intelligence of your customers.
If you’re selling yourself as an environmental brand, you will lose your market when it turns out that you are still sourcing your palm oil from illegal logging areas, or if your so-called “healthy” granola bar contains more sugar than a family-sized chocolate bar. Having shouted about your values, you could be lining yourself up perfectly for a very easy shot from the press and the public.
The same goes for declaring feminist values while having an all-male board. Or declaring allegiance to LGBTQ+ rights and manufacturing in countries with extremely poor gay rights records. Or claiming to support animal charities and having your latest fast food range sourced from battery farms. Whatever you aren’t doing on your supply chains or management teams, it will come to light – and it will reflect badly on your brand, damaging customer perception, trust and ultimately leading to a drop in retention and loyalty.
When you want to take on a value that’s integral to your customers, that is a wonderful thing. It’s so important for brands to embody what their market thinks and feels, and to support the important change that we need in the world. But you need to be ready to fully attach your business model to that goal, and if that is unattainable, you should take a step back and work out how you can go about that across every element of the value chain of your business.
Customers really, really aren’t stupid. They can see through a falsified number or hidden agenda extremely quickly, and if you don’t have absolute integrity in your desire to change how you do business or align to a cause for the right reasons, they will pick up on that faster than you can say “public apology”. Being dishonest or slapdash with applying a moral, environmental or social principle to your business will only ever come across as greedy, underhand business tactics, even if that absolutely wasn’t your intention.
Remember, trust in corporations is incredibly low. Forty-eight per cent of people surveyed in 2017 said they do not trust businesses to ‘do the right thing’. This is hardly surprising. From Iceland to Pepsi to Nestlé, we’ve seen some monumental slip ups in ensuring that a value or sense of purpose is continued across the supply chain and throughout a company’s ethos. It’s all very good to apologise, but that horse has already bolted, got on a plane and joined a circus in rural Ohio, so it’s no use fitting a lock to the stable door now. If you can anticipate a bad story that could damage your reputation, it is your responsibility to do everything you can to contain, challenge and address the issue before it occurs.
If anything, you should care too. This isn’t a matter of pernickety customers bewailing a changed logo. Their concerns on values are valid: deforestation is a massive issue, and global warming is the single biggest threat to our species. Women from every nation on the planet suffer from abuse, violence, harassment and prejudice. Racism remains a daily occurance in the lives of billions, and often goes unchallenged. Obesity rates in western countries are soaring. All these things need attention and you, as a brand, should care and raise awareness. It shouldn’t be something you simply do to make an easy profit off some rainbow sweets or a pink version of your product.
Ultimately, if you are taking on a value, make sure you mean it. You have incredible power as a brand: use it wisely and care about the way your business will impact the world around you. Move your business from corporate social responsibility, which is probably no more than a tick box exercise to social responsibility. It’s a subtle, yet significant, difference in culture and purpose.