They used to say sex sells; now, evidently, it’s activism.
Toms and their ‘one for one’ motto isn’t the only company flaunting good deeds. In reaction to Trump’s immigration ban, Starbucks CEO wrote an open letter to staff committing to hiring 10,000 refugees and Airbnb’s Brian Chesky tweeted that it was providing free accommodation to anyone not allowed in the US. Even Uber, created a $3m fund to help drivers affected by the “wrong and unjust” ban.
Companies are now attempting to outdo each other with major acts of generosity, but there’s a catch; they’ll do good as long as they can make sure their customers know about it. There is no room for humility when a brand does a good deed.
It’s difficult to separate the fact that while these brands are showcasing pedigree social responsibility, ultimately they are helping refugees because it sells milky lattes and cheap holiday accommodation. They can see that allocating their marketing budget to good causes has a better reach than spending that money elsewhere right now.
In the UK, people drink Kenco coffee not for its smooth blend, but because it’s training young men in Honduras to be coffee farmers instead of gang members. I know this because I saw the primetime TV advert with the end line “coffee v gangs” in which a gang member’s tattoos turned into inked coffee fields before my very eyes.
On 8 November, the day of the US presidential elections, the clothing company Patagonia closed all its stores to make sure anyone who would rather compare fleeces than choose a president had no excuse not to vote.
In 2010 Pepsi launched the Pepsi Refresh Initiative – $20m worth of grants awarded to individuals and non-profits for ideas with a positive impact on their community. The $20m was money originally budgeted for marketing, so instead of running a Super Bowl ad that year, the company publicised the initiative the week before the big game. Perhaps 2010 wasn’t ready for this kind of charity from a brand, or consumers smelled the marketing ploy, because Pepsi sales sunk and two years later the initiative was canned with an extravagant Super Bowl commercial starring Elton John.
For the past 12 years, Dove has smugly accepted fame for its portrayal of normal women in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Funny that they never mentioned it’s owned by Unilever, which also own Axe (or Lynx), a male brand of deodorant. TV adverts for the antiperspirant featured women with Victoria’s Secret levels of unattainable, conventional beauty. Telling teenage girls to accept themselves while telling teenage boys to accept nothing but tanned, hairless perfection, often in the same ad break, is quite a mean game to play. But a shrewd business move. Unilever had both audiences lapping it up. Although you’ll notice that with sex not selling any more, Lynx has changed its suit. As fickle as their teenage audience, it’s followed the latest trend, which for the millennial is more activist, less sexist.
That’s the crux of successful marketing today: activism is in. Our activism is currently mediated by brands. Brands are allowing people to pat themselves on the back without them personally having to sacrifice anything. It’s true. Popping into a warm, extremely convenient Starbucks for a sweet caffeine pick-up isn’t the same as driving to Calais on a Wednesday night with a boot full of baby carriers. I swapped one taxi app for another and felt incredibly smug. We’re all feeling the need to right the wrongs of today’s Brexit and Trump world – but few people are willing to actually sacrifice anything. If a brand can allow me to carry on living exactly as I was and fuel my social conscience then they can have all my pocket money.
Business is still business. These brands aren’t being good from the bottom of their hearts, they’re run by smart people who know being good sells fleeces and coffee and taxi rides. The ultimate deciding vote – where we spend our money – is voting good business in. Until we become cynical again; and then I’m sure Elton will be available.