PURPOSEFUL OR PERFORMATIVE ALLYSHIP? A FIGHT FOR BRAND INTEGRITY.
Brands may be surfing the last waves of a post purpose era as consumers challenge their performative allyship, messaging and product hypocrisies. Simultaneously, a generation of entrepreneurial activists are becoming founders, shareholders and board members, reshaping brands in their image by promoting a culture of progress and continual regeneration. So, as brands, how do we avoid brand activism being a passing trend and instead build brands that provoke change and gain consumer trust for years to come?
Definitions for brands
Woke washing, greenwashing, performative allyship, virtue signalling! Wash your mouth out with soap! These are some very naughty words when it comes to brand communications and they are examples of how not to provoke change. Here’s what these terms mean in relation to brands:
This is when a brand representing a majority or privileged group (white/straight/cis/abled) communicates their support of a marginalized group in a way that either isn’t helpful to that group (no action just a useless social media post) or actively harms that group. (For the record, using your privilege to advocate for a marginalized group is being a real ally and its a good thing!)
The appropriation of ethical and progressive values as a form of marketing for profit while hiding the dark side of their capitalistic venture.
Misleading consumers with eco-friendly messaging to convey an environmentally conscious business to gain profit.
To take public (but essentially useless) action to support a good cause when in fact you’re only driven by how consumers will perceive you and your brand.
Is performative allyship or greenwashing so wrong?
Of course, it is lovely to be surrounded by beautiful words spreading the message of unity. However, in some cases, when these words are not backed up by action, they make the world seem more of ‘a better place’ than it actually is. People trust businesses to deliver what they say because they see them as an authority. But now campaigns like #whomademyclothes are breaking through fake brand PR, greenwashing, and performative allyship to uncover uncomfortable truths about brands new and old. I, for one, am here for it.
Wokewashing and Virtue signalling Examples
We see examples of fashion brands aiming feminist messages at their female audience but not paying their female employees and garment workers fairly. The women who died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh were undoubtedly not feeling empowered – yet brands with feminist slogan T-shirts like Primark, Zara and Nike all had contracts with this very factory.
More recently we have seen Loreal displaying performative allyship with the BLM campaign. The haircare brand cancelled its campaign with Munroe Bergdorf in 2017, when she spoke out publicly against racism and white supremacy. As the BLM campaign gained momentum in June 2020, L’Oréal Paris shared a hypocritical statement on their Instagram account, claiming that “speaking out is worth it”. Some of the Instagram community, as well as Bergdorf, rightly responded to Loreal, pointing out that their message was empty and performative.
These are just two examples of brands using cause-led or inclusion messaging as a marketing campaign to gain profit. I’m not showing these examples to scare you (unless you’re one of them). I’m doing it because I want to tell the businesses who are genuinely pitching purpose beyond profit that there is another way.
Evolution IS revolution!
There is a whole hive of businesses out there who are committed to progressing social change and environmental good! They take many forms including Social Enterprises who reinvest 50% of their profits back into the community, BCorps that are created to solve an environmental issue like plastic pollution in our oceans, and companies who start foundations to overcome structural racism and discrimination.
It’s also essential to identify and include the transformational brands who are becoming aware of their privilege and the negative impact they are having, who are now taking positive action to change it for the better.
This beautiful myriad of diverse businesses are all at different parts of their journey. Whether they started out with purpose or have repositioned to find one, they are all essential cogs in the wheel of progress. These businesses are led by fearless founders who are provoking social and environmental progress through the power of their brands. These businesses are why we have to do something to protect the integrity of those doing the work!
Should brands be driving progress?
Some people say brands should stay out of the socio-political or environmental conversation because they don’t think it’s their place. But let’s look at why that is simply impossible.
Building culture from the inside out – Brands aren’t only communicating this ‘good’ message to their consumers; they have teams of people building an internal culture. By growing, educating and evolving organisations that inherently have a purpose beyond profit, we are amplifying the mission inside and outside of the business.
Money talks – Culture creates demand and demand fuels culture. This capitalist society we live in doesn’t have to be the crony-esque dog eat dog world that it has become. People want to be able to do good and drive change through everyday small activities, like buying their groceries or enlisting the services of other businesses. The growing demand for cause-led brands rises further as we see the erosion of archaic social narratives and the exposure of hard to swallow truths about obsolete supply chains.
Warm your cockles – Buying stuff (consumerism) is transactional and cold by nature. Still, we are all just humans selling to other humans, so bringing kindness or the potential for progress makes it more meaningful.
We care what people think – In today’s society, the things we buy signal to those around us about our values (it’s not virtue signalling if we truly care about these things and are taking constructive action). The world is moving away from ‘I’m rich’ signals via Rolex watches, and towards much more socially acceptable, ‘I’m eco’ messages via brands like Tesla.
How can brands show integrity and gain consumers’ trust?
It all starts with a pledge! Right here, right now we are going to pinky promise to run our businesses with integrity. If we want to to build trust and show people what we are made of as brands seeking progress, then we need a guiding philosophy. I present to you the 3T’s Pledge for Progress. This pledge will be your north star as you build your brand, your culture and your products. It signals to our consumers that we are authentic and they can trust that what we say is what we do. It is only one piece of your journey – but start as you mean to go on!