Socially Responsible Marketing: Catalyst for Change or Capitalist Con?
A torrent of socially responsible marketing campaigns has burst into the frame in recent years, as every business and organisation appears eager to throw themselves behind the latest trending movement. The environment, feminism, racism, and the LGBTQIA+ community have all been the focus of countless promotions designed to spread awareness and tolerance.
Traditionally, marketing has had one objective: to sell a product by subtly altering our habits to suit commercial needs. By harnessing the influence that marketing campaigns hold and turning their attention towards meaningful pursuits, companies are hoping to change attitudes on a more profound level.
While Unilever has received praise in recent years for its socially responsible marketing approach, it hasn’t been disapproval free. Some critiques say that Unilever’s advertising morals don’t align with the company’s – and they’re not the only business guilty of failing to practice what they preach.
This behaviour raises the question – are companies launching ethical marketing campaigns to redefine the world and promote much-needed change, or are they clout-chasing? Read on to discover how authentic socially responsible marketing is, where its place in society lies, and what society expects from marketing today.
Do we expect marketing to drive change?
In the past couple of decades, organisations have begun taking accountability for their influence over consumer thinking.
People are paying attention. A survey from 2014 found that over 80% of consumers expect brands to lead the way on social issues but don’t believe they are doing enough to create a change in society.
The younger generations are particularly fond of corporate social responsibility and show support with their wallets. Three-quarters of millennials have changed their buying habits to support environmentally friendly products and over 60% of Gen Zers say they would be more inclined to buy from a company supporting a social cause.
Does socially responsible marketing work?
Socially conscious brands outperform those that aren’t, leading many analysts to conclude that ethical practices drive sales. However, launching an environmental campaign alone isn’t enough – a business must prove to its customers its authenticity.
Authentic business campaign values align with those of the business – for example, if they promote sustainable practices, they enact environmentally-friendly practices across the company. This will add value to the cause.
Vaselines Healing Project
Connecting to the brand’s core when creating a campaign makes a more memorable and genuine experience.
Vaseline mastered this with their Vaseline Healing Project, launched in 2015, which provides skin healthcare for those with limited access to quality medical care.
The program has directly helped over one million vulnerable people across the world, providing medical supplies to people in need and training over 600 doctors and 1200 nurses.
Vaseline, launched in 1859 to treat burns and wounded skin, crafted a programme to tie together its original purpose and a deserving social cause. Public support was overwhelmingly positive, and two years after the campaign launch, Vaseline was named the world’s official leading brand in hand and body care.
Are socially responsible marketing campaigns socially responsible?
If a company is launching a campaign to encourage equal rights for women, it stands to reason that their advertising should include a fair balance of men and women. If a brand is painting a picture of a better world, it should be inclusive.
A study from last year examining over 1000 Facebook adverts found tired, sexist stereotypes still being perpetuated in the media:
- Women were 14 times more likely than men to wear revealing clothes
- Men were 2.4 times more likely to be angry than women
- Women were seven times more likely than men to be objectified
Representation, while improving slowly over the years, is still woefully inadequate:
- People with disabilities featured in only 1.1% of adverts analysed
- Members of the LGBTQIA+ community were present in 0.3% of campaigns
- Latino and black Americans were 1.8 times more likely to see negative stereotypes associated with them
Consumers aren’t happy with the media’s portrayal of society – an IPSOS survey from October last year found most respondents did not feel represented by marketing campaigns. Minority groups felt particularly neglected.
In stark contrast, 71% of people surveyed expected marketing campaigns to be inclusive and promote diversity. It’s key for companies to deliver this to consumers – or face losing them altogether.
Consumers are making their wishes known through their wallets – if they don’t feel an organisation is acting with ethical integrity, they won’t hand their money over to them.
Some businesses have launched ground-breaking campaigns which have spurred real change – while others missed the mark. Read on to find what it takes to create an authentic campaign that customers love and what to avoid.
Diageo, one of the world’s leading producers of alcoholic beverages with a portfolio of over 200 brands under its belt, has big ambitions. While business is booming, it isn’t only profits they’re looking to improve.
With campaigns designed to prevent binge drinking, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, and promote equality in the workplace, Diageo is forging a vision for a safer, more equal world.
To do this, they’ve launched countless campaigns over the years. We’ll take a look at some of the best below.
International Women’s Day 2019
In 2019, they released a short film highlighting the continuing gender imbalance in advertising and vowed to do better. To ensure it wasn’t an empty pledge, the company trained over 1200 marketers on representation in advertising, covering different perspectives and accurate characterisation of different genders.
It coincided with International Women’s Day and the government’s launch of the Creative Equal Returners Scheme, with Diageo as a participant. The scheme supported women returning to creative work after a 12-month absence and highlighted difficulties still faced by women trying to return to work.
The campaign went beyond flashy ads – Diageo invested in promoting equality in society and their own backyard. Chief Marketing Officer at the time Syl Saller, said, “It’s better for society, it’s better for business, and we’ll create the future we want to see.”
Johnnie Walker Black Label, The Jane Walker Edition
For Women’s history month in 2018, Diageo launched a limited-edition version of their Johnnie Walker whiskey. Using the same ever-popular blend, they twisted the classic design, replacing the symbolic striding man with Jane, the female alter-ego.
Introducing Jane Walker, our new icon that celebrates progress in Women’s Rights. With every step, we all move forward. pic.twitter.com/1YP32odgJk— Johnnie Walker (@JohnnieWalkerUS) February 26, 2018
For every bottle sold, Diageo donated $1 to organisations promoting gender equality. In their press release, they proudly pointed out that almost half of Johnnie Walker’s expert blenders are women; and an almost equal balance of men and women is present across their corporate division.
While the public was dubious at first for fear it was pandering, its charitable actions and back-of-house commitments did win people around.
Society 2030: Spirit of Progress
In their most ambitious campaign yet, Diageo has set themselves 25 targets aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. From reaching net zero emissions to cutting water use, promoting diversity, and tackling underage drinking, they have their work cut out for them.
We have a track record of setting ambitious targets and our Society 2030: Spirit of Progress plan is no different. The power of the ambition has a mobilising effect on our people and is a catalyst for innovation.Ewan Andrew, President, Global Supply and Procurement and Chief Sustainability Officer.
Like their previous campaigns, they’ve supported their pledges with tangible actions, such as the announcement of a new carbon-neutral distillery in China, with construction starting this year.
Their annual report shows improvements are already occurring within the organisation – since 2021:
- People educated on responsible drinking rose from 210,000 thousand to over 600,000
- The percentage of female leaders globally rose from 2% up to 44%
- The portion of ethnically diverse leaders globally increased from 37% to 41%
- Carbon emissions have fallen from 472 to 447 (1000 tonnes Co2e)
While the campaign isn’t designed to push sales, the company has reaped financial rewards – its sales rose by 21% this year, reaching £15.5 billion by mid-2022.
Authentic, ethical marketing backed with measurable actions is popular with consumers – they benefit from societal improvements and are happy to show their support.
Another prominent figure in the world of socially responsible marketing, Unilever, has launched numerous campaigns over the years promoting equality and sustainability. The parent company of over 400 brands, including Dove, Cif, and Hellmann’s, their influence extends across the goods markets and into 3.4 billion homes.
Unilever has attracted applause and controversy over the years. Many of its marketing schemes have triggered real change both within Unilever and on a broader scale. However, some of their behaviour has proved less than desirable and doesn’t align with their own messages that they’re broadcasting through their marketing.
Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign
One of the longest-running socially conscious campaigns, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, launched in 2004. Its inspiration was from a research paper published that year finding that only 2% of women would describe themselves as beautiful.
To change that figure and transform women’s appearance into “a source of confidence and not anxiety,” Dove made a series of pledges:
- To make their adverts with real women, not models, of various ages, ethnicities, sizes, hair colours, and styles.
- To portray women realistically – no photoshopping!
- To promote body confidence and self-esteem in women and girls.
The campaign encouraged women to embrace their imperfections and see them as part of their beauty and confidence. Public approval was high – during the first ten years of the campaign, sales jumped from $2.5 to $4 billion.
However, the campaign wasn’t free from criticism. While Unilever preached acceptance in their Dove campaign, they continued to sell their skin-lightening product Glow and Lovely (formerly Fair and Lovely) across Asia. Until 2019 a ‘shade guide’ was available on the packaging, and until 2020 it had references to “whitening” and “lightening” skin.
Lynx – #IsItOkForGuys
In an attempt to move away from Lynx’s traditional marketing, usually featuring women flocking to a man the moment he uses Lynx body spray, Unilever launched a new type of campaign in 2017. #IsItOkForGuys encourages men to be comfortable asking questions they were too afraid to say to their friends.
They released a short film featuring the boxer Anthony Joshua to make men feel more comfortable in themselves. Some of the questions asked were: “is it okay to be a virgin?” and “is it okay for guys to be friends with women?”
The campaign was launched in light of new research revealing over half of men in the UK believe they must act tough. A further 57% had been instructed to behave a certain way.
We want guys to see there’s no holds barred on what men can or cannot be. We need to help more men by tackling toxic masculinity, head on. Our aim is to create an inclusive society where everyone – men and women – can be who they damn well want to be.Lynx’s global vice president, Rik Strubel.
While Unilever can undoubtedly create a successful campaign to inspire real change, their own company actions hold them back. Their adverts won’t reach their true potential until Unilever starts to act in line with its own ideas.
It’s in Unilever’s interest to commit to its own messaging – 70% of its growth is from its Sustainable Living brands. These brands also grew 46% faster than the rest of their portfolio.
BrewDog – Beer For All
Last year, BrewDog launched their Beer for All campaign to celebrate the company becoming carbon negative in 2020. For every beer you drink, they’ve promised to plant enough trees to remove more carbon emissions from the atmosphere than the company creates.
Their motivation is simple: to make “it a better world for everyone who drinks BrewDog, and even those who don’t.”
Becoming the world’s first carbon-negative beer business is no small feat. To pull it off, the company purchased a 9000-acre plot of land in the Scottish Highlands, named the Lost Forest, to plant over one million trees and restore 650 acres of peatland.
In conjunction with this, BrewDog launched a new beer line called Lost Lager. Initial advertising promised: “we’ll plant a tree in our forest” for every pack sold. They removed the ads after The Guardian flagged them as misleading.
The Woodland Carbon Code allows companies to capture and exchange carbon credits. Another company struggling to lower its emissions can buy these and exchange some of their emissions with a low-carbon business.
Brewdog is using their forest to participate in the scheme. They’ve drawn some criticism as they’re enabling other companies to carry on releasing carbon emissions.
Eager to distract from the less than positive reviews, a BrewDog spokesperson said: “none of this should distract from the fact that our number one priority is to reduce emissions.” He continued, “the more beer we sell, the more we invest in these schemes.”
The restoration of the Lost Forest is undeniably good news for the planet and could highlight BrewDog as a business serious about climate action. However, misleading advertising and ethically questionable business practices have hurt their reputation.
Israel’s Gay Vacation Destination
Since 2005, the Israeli government has been trying to prove that it’s the perfect, gay-friendly holiday destination. It launched its campaign following a West Communications Survey ranking the country 194 out of 200 countries in terms of public perception regarding gay rights.
The campaign goal is for the world to view Israel as the most tolerant country in the middle east toward the LGBTQIA+ community. To do this, they hosted World Pride in 2006, which was unsurprisingly met with calls to boycott the event.
In 2010, the Tel Aviv tourism board received $90 million to fund a new campaign, branding the city as the go-to destination for the gay community. The area boasts gay clubs, bars, saunas, an annual pride parade, and even its own LGBT beach.
However, the Israeli government is preaching acceptance against the backdrop of persecution, oppression, imprisonment, and murder of Palestinians. In the past 50 years, Israel has built multiple illegal settlements in Gaza and the Western Bank, supporting over 600,000 Jewish Israelis.
Israel has taken Palestine’s land and imposed an apartheid state, where the Israeli government and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) control Palestinians. In an interview for the Guardian, an IDF soldier admitted, “you don’t have time or energy to think of Palestinians as people.”
To preach tolerance and love to one portion of the population, whilst actively killing another, is breathtakingly hypocritical. Israel diverts attention toward Palestine’s attitude towards the LGBTQIA+ community, in an attempt to justify their own behaviour.
Israel’s campaign sits in the territory of propaganda. While Israel isn’t particularly hostile towards the gay community, it cannot pretend to be a warm and open country. After all, any gay people in Palestine would not agree with Israel’s claim of acceptance.
PepsiCo’s Live For Now Campaign
An article on socially conscious campaigns would be remiss not to mention the famously disastrous Pepsi advert from 2017 featuring Kendall Jenner. Pulled less than 48 hours after its release, the advert featured Kendall Jenner at a protest, handing a police officer a can of Pepsi, successfully defusing all tension with one simple action.
The advert came at a time of global unrest as protests against police brutality and racism erupted, first across America and later the world. The reality protestors faced was distinctly different to the warm reception Kendall Jenner and her crew received.
The tone-deaf campaign featured smiling protestors holding generic signs with messages such as “Join the Conversation” and the peace symbol. When Jenner hands the police officer a can of Pepsi, he smiles at a fellow officer.
The advert immediately drew criticism for its apparent borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement. While BLM protests racial profiling and needless murders by police, the Pepsi advert undeniably had only one cause – to boost profits.
How PepsiCo’s advert received approval and made it on the air is a marketing mystery.
Following the ad getting pulled, a spokesperson for the company said, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”
Incorporating serious issues with deadly consequences into a campaign is exceptionally difficult. Mimicking reality while removing the jeopardy of the situation will inevitably insult those affected.
Doomed to fail before hitting our screens, the PepsiCo advert fell far short of socially conscious marketing. If you’re unclear about what not to do in your next campaign, take notes from this campaign.
Nike – For Once Don’t Do It
In sharp contrast to Pepsi, Nike has been successfully launching marketing campaigns targeting tough issues such as racism and police brutality for years.
In 2020, they launched their “For Once, Don’t Do It” campaign, putting a twist on their classic “Just Do It” slogan. The ad urges people, “don’t turn your back on racism, don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us.”
It followed the death of George Floyd, who died just four days prior while in police custody in Minnesota.
The simplistic ad, consisting of only white text on a black background, ended by asking its viewers: “Let’s all be part of the change.”
No Nike products feature in the ad – only the logo appears at the end of the video. While some critics believe it to be a ploy to draw people to their website and shops, others have suggested there is power in associating a well-known brand with a political stance.
For the most part, the campaign was exceptionally well received, with consumers aged 16-49 perceiving it to be more empowering than 98% of all other adverts.
The general public wasn’t the only one inspired – the Chief Executive of Nike, John Donahoe, sent a letter to his employees promising to boost diversity within the company and committed $40 million to struggling black communities.
What Makes a Socially Responsible Marketing Campaign Successful?
Marketing extends beyond advertising – consumers are constantly watching what businesses are up to, and if they don’t like what they see, they will take their money elsewhere. How a company conducts itself, what messages it stands behind, and its actions are all on trial.
Alongside being authentic, being honest with consumers is essential. No company is perfect, and most have acted at least questionably, if not outright unethical, over the years. As priorities in society shift, businesses must keep up.
I think the biggest thing for us is recognizing that we’re on a journey. We know we may not have the answers for everything but if we waited to have the answers for everything we would be nowhere.Casey DePalma, Director of Digital Engagement and PR at Unilever.
Finally, credibility is a crucial component of an effective campaign. Companies’ commenting on issues without perspective – for example, sexism when the business has an all-male head office, causes significant damage to the company name.
Why is it important anyway?
Corporations might be tempted to avoid tackling societal issues through marketing. After all, they are a minefield of sensitive and personal problems, and even the best among them still attract criticism.
However, if a campaign can raise awareness and promote healthier, fairer development, then companies should be encouraged to use their platform for good.
Inequality and environmental degradation remain rampant across the world and at home. Ethically motivated marketing could help tackle some societal issues, such as:
- Just 35% of the current UK government is female
- The number of racially motivated crimes in the UK increased last year by 73%
- There’s a growing scientific consensus that global temperature rise will exceed 1.5C of warming due to climate change
- There are still 69 countries across the world where it is illegal to be gay
- In the UK, men are almost twice as likely to hold a senior job position than women
- By the middle of the century, 1.2 billion people could become climate refugees
- Just under one in five LGBTQIA+ people in the UK have been homeless at least once in their lives
- In 2020, the climate displaced more people than conflict
These issues are deep-rooted, and no one expects marketing to fix them. However, there is significant potential to raise awareness and funds to help fight injustice.
Socially responsible marketing isn’t going anywhere. Getting it right isn’t easy, and a mistake can mar a company’s reputation for years.
However, when a business gets it right, consumers stay loyal to them. When business practices correlate to a campaign’s message, the capacity to inspire, educate and invoke change expands.