Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

By Andy Last, Executive Partner, Purpose & Sustainability at MullenLowe

There’s nothing new about climate change or social justice. They’re issues that have affected people and the planet we share for hundreds if not thousands of years. The thought that these might be topics for brands has, however, arrived more recently.

Take a year like 1968.  The year Bill Bowerman designed the world’s first track shoe, the Nike Cortez; when Lego extended its brand into theme parks with the first Legoland; and when Unilever launched a new ‘U’ logo for its corporate brand. 1968 was also the year of ‘Earthshot’, the first picture of the Earth from space, an image that helped kick-start the modern environmental movement. And the year of the then most far-reaching piece of social justice legislation in America, the Civil Rights Act in the wake of riots following the assassination of Martin Luther-King.

Climate change and social justice aren’t new issues.  But in 1968 brands could get along just fine without worrying about them. Nike didn’t have to talk about civil rights, Lego didn’t have to worry about the impact of billions of plastic bricks, and Unilever didn’t have to worry about palm oil.

Things have changed since then.  Gradually at first, and then suddenly.  Brands like The Body Shop and Ben and Jerry’s emerged in the 1970s, built on championing fairness and the planet. Oil companies sometimes came under attack from Greenpeace. But social justice and climate change weren’t mainstream.

Then came 2020. COVID didn’t create these issues, but it did make them impossible to ignore. COVID didn’t make civil rights more important, but it did create the environment in which the death of George Floyd was impossible to ignore. For brands to be silent on Black Lives Matter was to be complicit, tweeted Netflix.

Nor did COVID create the climate emergency.  But it did show the impact we have on the planet and what can happen when we’re forced to pause. And the postponement of the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow to the following year resulted in what could be called the first Finance COP – climate change moving to the centre of government, to questions for finance and prime ministers not just environment departments.

2020 didn’t make social justice and climate change important. But it made them important for all brands. That’s why people miss the point when they say brand purpose doesn’t matter. Brands that ignore the impact of social and environmental issues – with social justice and climate change at the fore – won’t survive to see what will happen if their corporate owners ignore them.

Why? Because woke Gen Z consumers will insist on choosing only progressive brands and pay more for the privilege? No. Gen Z will grow older, take on more responsibilities, and behave as countless generations have before them. It’s the other headwinds that will force brands to be proactive on social and environmental issues.

Because regulators from California to China are passing climate laws forcing businesses to cut emissions. Across Europe and the UK, legislation from right and left-wing governments is leading to businesses having to reduce emissions, use fairer supply chains and avoid greenwash in their advertising.

Because customers are forcing their suppliers to change.  In 2001, UK retailers cancelled over £7 billion of contracts because of concerns over suppliers’ ethical or environmental performance.

Because start-ups can take easy aim at established brands through social and environment first claims, from Tony’s Chocolonely’s ‘slave-free’ attack on Kit Kat and others to Chilly’s taking on Evian.  Big Chocolate, Big Water and Big Brands everywhere – no longer protected from scrappy start-ups by the old barriers to entry of big advertising budgets, big factories and big distribution networks – are having to comply to compete.

And because of the biggest headwind of all, coming from Wall Street and The City – places not previously known for their progressive take on environmental and social issues.  Investors are tracking the environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance of the companies they hold shares in, not because they want to do the right thing, but because investing in a business that doesn’t have its house in order on emissions is too risky. And investing in a company that doesn’t understand the new social compact and act on it (fair supply chains, diversity of opportunity, transparency in doing business) stores up unwanted problems.

Businesses are being forced – by their customers, by their governments, by their shareholders – to invest in sustainability, to reduce emissions and inequalities.  This system change is only going in one direction, with pressure groups and punchy start-ups pointing the way that individual consumer and employment choices will follow.

And once businesses have been forced to make those investments – reduced emissions and fairer supply chains do cost – then the questions move to the marketing department: how do we get a return on this investment?  How do we protect our reputation and make sure people see we’re not the bad guys?  How do we change the market so less scrupulous competitors can’t undercut us?

That’s what we’re seeing now with the headlong rush to purpose marketing and with awards ceremonies overflowing with do good campaigns.  These are brands trying to answer the new questions forced by corporate investment in ESG.  And the results are a mixture of mad, bad and dangerous to know.

The mad campaigns where brands that have painstakingly built a clear positioning with established messaging and tone of voice, suddenly start championing random acts of altruism.  The bad brands, paralysed by fear for getting woke wrong, who say nothing and whose silence is taken for guilt – ‘to be silent is to be complicit’.  And the dangerous to know fashion brands trying to greenwash their troubles away by appointing a Kardashian as sustainability advisor.

Brand communication needs to be brilliantly simple; climate change and social justice are really complex.  It’s not easy to combine the two.  But it is possible.  We’re the first ad agency to have a sustainability consultancy fully integrated inside. We won’t be the last. Our job is to make the complex simple and the simple compelling – to take the ‘risky’ and ‘boring’ out of brands addressing these now non-optional issues.

The vast majority of governments – the European Union plus 193 other nations – signed the Paris Agreement in 2016 to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.   Companies are being forced (by regulations and ESG investment criteria) to make their own Net Zero plans.  The result of this will be that the number of brands who don’t get sustainability will be net zero sooner that we think. It happens gradually then suddenly.