It’s common knowledge today that brands now operate in a consumer activist marketplace where their ability to dialogue with brands and each other is shaping brand behavior. Brands are responding because it is far better to avoid or mitigate negative publicity than try to weather out the storm as most recently discovered by the CEOs of Abercrombie & Fitch, Lululemon and Mozilla, among others. So what should brands do to avoid PR disasters that could be the undoing of their brand leadership?
Align Products With Values: In the days of traditional media that were almost exclusively broadcast in nature, brands took the educated risk of selling a wide variety of products that served their bottom line even if not their values. Now that social crises like healthcare, obesity, and chronic disease are becoming so acute, brand are seeking to avoid logical criticism when a product does not align with their core values or are potentially harmful to the customer.
A recent example of this is when CVS Caremark declared they were no longer going to sell tobacco products as this did not align with their future as a healthcare brand. “Ending the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products at CVS/pharmacy is the right thing for us to do for our customers and our company to help people on their path to better health,” said Larry J. Merlo, President and CEO, CVS Caremark. “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose.” Merlo drew a straight line between the product ban and their company purpose stating:
“As the delivery of health care evolves with an emphasis on better health outcomes, reducing chronic disease, and controlling costs, CVS Caremark is playing an expanded role in providing care through our pharmacists and nurse practitioners. The significant action we’re taking today by removing tobacco products from our retail shelves further distinguishes us in how we are serving our patients, clients and health care providers and better positions us for continued growth in the evolving health care marketplace.”
Clean Up Your Ingredients: When your customers have such endless access to information on the web, there is little chance that you can hide the negative effect of certain product ingredients. No matter how much your fans love your product they will not tolerate the use of harmful ingredients. In fact, the more attached they feel to your brand the more emboldened they feel to demand greater responsibility from the company.
A recent example includes the elimination of the yoga mat ingredient that was used to bleach subway buns. After consistent consumer and customer pushback the brand decided to eliminate the ingredient from their products. The ingredient, azodicarbonamide, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in food as a bleaching agent and dough conditioner. Tony Pace, Subway’s chief marketing officer, stated “You see the social media traffic, and people are happy that we’re taking it out, but they want to know when we’re taking it out. If there are people who have that hesitation, that hesitation is going to be removed.” The trend has prompted other food makers to adjust their recipes, even as they stand by the safety of their products. For example, PepsiCo removed a BVO chemical from Gatorade and now Coca-Cola is doing the same with Powerade after a 15-year-old girl’s online petition received over 200,000 signatures.
Increase Transparency: With such a well-informed, media-savvy and activist customer audience, it’s critical for brands to not only get out ahead of issues but to stay ahead. For years the harvesting of palm oil has received harsh criticism for its environmental impact. This issue reached a flash point in 2010 for Nestle when a campaign by Greenpeace forced the company to become more eco-friendly. That’s why Kellogg’s, maker of such iconic snack and breakfast foods, recently announced a new commitment to only purchasing palm oil that can be traced back to suppliers certified to protect forests, lands, and human rights by the end of 2015. Kellogg’s Chief Sustainability Officer Diane Holdorf stated, “As a socially responsible company, traceable, transparent sourcing of palm oil is important to us, and we are collaborating with our suppliers to make sure the palm oil we use is not associated with deforestation, climate change, or the violation of human rights.”
The reality for brands today is that there is nowhere to hide. With every success, consumers become more encouraged to demand greater social responsibility from brands in exchange for their purchases and loyalty. The companies listed above have taken prudent and smart steps to respond to the new reality in which they operate and the short-term costs they absorb are a worthwhile investment in the long-term success of their companies. In a marketplace increasingly defined by fast changing social technologies, fresh competition, and compounding social crises, these moves are more than good intentions, they are good business.
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Simon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, a leading brand consultancy that provides purpose-driven strategy, content, and training that empowers companies to lead business, shape culture, and better our world.