Unilever CEO Alan Jope caused a bit of stir last week as the advertising industry headed to the sunny south of France for the annual Cannes Lion advertising exhibition.
The 30-year Unilever veteran, who took the helm at the FMCG giant at the start of the year, took aim at companies that take part in “woke-washing” – that, in other words, tout their environmentally- or socially-responsible credentials in their branding and marketing but don’t back it up with sustained action.
“Woke-washing is polluting purpose,” he told the event. “Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.”
A growing number of consumers want companies to take a stand on issues like environmental sustainability or labour conditions and are spending their money accordingly. Unilever has often said publicly the performance of its brands focused on areas like environmental sustainability has been better than other products in its stable – and it was something Jope reiterated this week in an interview with Bloomberg.
He also said the consumer-goods behemoth could offload brands that can’t “make a positive contribution to society”.
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Such moves, if they happen, would underline Unilever’s reputation as being a purpose-led business.
Jope’s comments do have merit. Brands and businesses are facing scrutiny over some of their positions on social issues. Upmarket UK retailer Marks and Spencer attracted criticism recently over the launch of a sandwich to mark Pride month.
That’s not to say Unilever has always got it right. Its advertising around personal-care brand Dove has faced flak in the past.
And, of course, Jope’s criticism of companies engaging in “woke-washing” could be a way of protecting Unilever in the tussle for socially-conscious consumers, an argument set out on Friday by one UK corporate communications agency.
Moreover – and this is for all companies to consider – who defines purpose? Who monitors the initiatives companies undertake in their support of issues? Who evaluates success?
If, as the growing number of surveys suggests, more consumers are becoming more concerned about ethical issues and that interest is shaping their purchases, these are all questions all companies must consider. Similar could be said about the growing interest attention are giving such issues.
But, in many ways, these questions point to the challenge of enlightened capitalism. CEOs like Jope, his predecessor Polman and peers like Danone‘s Emmanuel Faber clearly believe corporate responsibility and marketing led by a ‘purpose’ should be central to business strategy and the relationships between companies and consumers and companies and other stakeholders.
However, as our contributing editor Ben Cooper discussed in this article earlier this year, corporate responsibility and ‘purpose’ are hard to measure. Moreover, some in the investment community believe the terms can sometimes be used too easily and want more rigour to back up the claims.
Others may suggest it will prove impossible to ever quantify and measure ‘purpose’ but companies will be doing themselves no harm by looking to be transparent, publishing information on their initiatives and on their progress (or lack thereof) and therefore help investors – and consumers – make their own evaluations.