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6 Brands That Prove How Easy It Is To Cross The Line

Time and time again, research has shown that the most successful companies have clearly defined and communicated what their organisation stands for and stands up for. In essence, they have looked at their brand and defined not only what promise it makes, but what purpose it serves, both to its customers and shareholders, and then bought that purpose to life through every customer interaction. They have repeatedly demonstrated the positive role that they play in society. They have made it clear that it’s not just about growth at any cost, but that they have a duty of care to their employees, customers and the environment in which they operate.

The annual 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study talked to 1,000 Americans to determine their attitudes, perceptions and behaviour on corporate social responsibility. The study discovered that consumers expected companies to not only improve their business practices, but 78% actively wanted companies to address important social justice issues and 70% believe that companies have an obligation to improve issues that may not be relevant to their everyday operations.

What does this mean for sales? Well, 87% claimed to have purchased a product because the company that produced it had advocated for an issue that they personally cared about; supporting issues has a positive impact on reputation, trust and loyalty. 89% would switch brands to one that is associated with a good cause, given similar quality and price, marking a significant increase from the 66% claimed in 1993.

Customers want companies to demonstrate leadership on political and social issues. The fourth Global Strategy Group (GSG) Business & Politics study found that 84% of Americans believe businesses have a responsibility to drive social change on important issues, 81% think they should address important societal issues, and 88% believe business have the power to influence social change.

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, which talks to customers across 28 markets, found the same view shared globally, with 75% agreeing with the statement “A company can take specific actions that both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.”

To be effective, a company’s brand purpose needs to be both authentic and unique to them. It cannot be a generic category descriptor, otherwise it’s meaningless. In order to work, it is essential that it’s something that a company is good at, something it’s passionate about, and something that’s actually relevant to what society needs. Brand purpose can be the differentiating factor for why a customer chooses your brand over another.

Personally, I applaud any brand prepared to put their head on the chopping block and stand up for what they believe in, but they need to have earned the right to do so. There is no point in force-fitting a brand to a social cause, or playing lip service to this ideal, as your customers will check. According to Cone Communications, 65% claimed that they conduct their own research to ensure that the company is being authentic. Perhaps more importantly, 76% claimed that they would boycott a company’s products if they discovered that the company who produced it supported an issue that conflicted with their own beliefs. This was backed up by Mediacom research in the UK, which found that 40% of consumers claim to have actually stopped using or never used a brand because of its values or behaviours.

Is all of this worth your time and energy? Well yes it is. Wunderman surveyed 2,000 consumers in the US and UK, and discovered that 89% of Americans and 84% of UK consumers are loyal to brands that share their values. The Mediacom research also found that 35% of consumers have bought a brand specifically because of its chosen values or beliefs, rising to 49% for 18 to 24 year olds. 49% of consumers in the UK claimed to be willing to pay more for a brand that supports a cause that’s important to them, rising to 60% among 18 to 24 year olds.

Unilever, for the second year running, top the Radley Yeldar ‘Fit for Purpose 2016’ ranking of the world’s most purposeful companies. They’ve defined a sub set of brands that all share a strong social or environmental purpose – ‘Sustainable Living’. These brands accounted for 60% of their growth in 2016 and are growing more than 50% faster than the rest of their business!

But, it’s a risky business. There is no accounting for personal taste, or how customers will choose to interpret or misinterpret your intent, or just bad luck on timing. Even the good and the great have slipped up.

These seven brands, all leaders in their fields, found out the hard way this year that there is a shifting line in the sand that’s incredibly easy to cross. But it’s not all doom and gloom; those that acknowledge their error and react at speed with authentic and practical solutions will find their trespasses forgiven, if not always forgotten.

1. Benetton


Benetton is renowned for its provocative stance on a number of issues, including a long-running female empowerment campaign. This month, the brand posted an Instagram ad that got immediately slated. The caption “Sorry ladies. Girls not allowed!” hit the wrong note and was accused of being sexist. The ad and subsequent comments are still up on their page!

2. McDonalds

An ad in the UK for McDonalds Filet-O-Fish portrayed a young boy asking his mother what he shared in common with his dead father. The answer appeared to be nothing except his taste in type of McDonald burger! Condemned by both bereavement charities and social media as inappropriate and insensitive, the ad was pulled and prompted an investigation by the UK Advertising Standards Authority.

3. Special K

Special K’s latest ad is designed to portray women as amazing as they can run marathons and  companies, have babies, and solve problems. So far so good, except that they are amazing because they eat food! Most of the criticism on social media centres on the company’s naïve messaging, with plenty of sarcasm thrown in!

4. Zara

A denim miniskirt sold by Zara in the US and UK caused a social media storm. The skirt was printed with what turned out to be a controversial picture of a frog on it. The frog was thought to resemble Pepe the Frog, a meme which was co-opted by the alt-right and has been categorised as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League since last September. The skirt was part of a limited edition Oil-on-Denim collection created in collaboration with budding artists as a showcase for their work. Needless to say Twitter lit up in fury at the apparent lack of awareness regarding current social issues. The skirt was quickly withdrawn from sale!

5. Coopers

Bible Society Australia aired a video, ‘Keeping it Light’ in which two Liberal MPs debated marriage equality while drinking Coopers Premium Light. The video was meant to demonstrate that two people with opposing views can have a considered discussion without causing chaos. While true of the video itself, the outcome of its airing led to a boycott of Coopers products by both consumers and drinking establishments, upset by the brand’s support of a religious organisation pushing a political message which for many was felt to be homophobic.

6. Pizza Hut

Pizza Hut Israel posted an ad on social media that appeared to mock the leader of a three-week-old hunger strike taking place in Israeli prisons. Israel’s prison service had released a video which they claimed showed the leader of the hunger strike eating a candy bar in his cell. Pizza Hut saw fit to then superimpose a pizza box and pizza slice into the image with the message “if you’re going to break a strike, why not pizza?”. The post outraged Palestinians, who’ve called for a mass boycott of the brand. Pizza Hut International issued a public apology and sacked the agency who created it.

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