Food for thought

Food marketers: Stop telling people how to think

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Should food brands join the woke wars? No, FoodNavigator's Oliver Morrison argues  / Pic: GettyImages Peter Dazeley
Should food brands join the woke wars? No, FoodNavigator's Oliver Morrison argues / Pic: GettyImages Peter Dazeley

Related tags: ben & jerry's, Unilever, Advertising, Marketing, Brand

No, your consumers don’t want lectures on climate change, BLM and LGBTQ+.

It’s OK if you hate cycling but bear with me. Why do you think professional cyclists shave their legs? To more easily apply and remove bandages if they crash? To go faster? For nicer massages?

No. Competitive cyclists will shrug and say it’s because, well, everyone else does.

They’re not sheep. You just don’t look like a ‘serious cyclist’ with hairy legs. They signal your commitment and devotion to the sport. They are therefore an inalienable part of the identity of the ‘serious cyclist’.

Let’s talk about food. Today’s food and beverage brand’s very often associate themselves with fashionable causes. Yes, the ‘W’ word.

Take the outcries from Ben & Jerry’s about the UK government’s ‘abhorrent’ policy of sending refugees to Rwanda. M&S’s infamous LGBT sandwich. Or Burger King Austria’s Pride Whopper, served with ‘equal buns’ to represent, apparently, ‘equal rights and equal love’. All examples of brands supporting so-called wokeness in their marketing.

They do this, I contend, because they believe these gestures are part and parcel of a brand’s identity. Their devotion and commitment to progressive causes, just like those cyclists and their razors, ensures they are identified and perceived as a ‘serious brand’.

Most of us don’t want them to do this though.

The Pull Agency, a consultancy, surveyed over 2,000 UK consumers (made up of an accurate representative of the UK’s gender, age and ethnicity mix) on their thoughts about brands supporting ‘progressive’ causes.

68% of consumers said they were uneasy or unsure about brands supporting climate change, BLM, LGBTQ+, equality, diversity and inclusion and female body confidence. 8% said that they would actively avoid brands that support these causes. 

When brands get involved with social causes, 58% believed it insincere – woke-washing or green-washing. 15% of consumers said they will avoid brands that they think are indulging in woke or green-washing.

Only 22% of consumers claimed that they knew what was meant by ‘brand purpose’. 

Most consumers (58%) would prefer that brands simply pay their taxes, treat people fairly and respect the environment, the survey revealed, almost four times more than want brands to support woke causes.

More brand harm than good

The research was focussed on the health & beauty category. But Pull Agency CEO Chris Bullick told me the findings apply to most brands, including those in the food and beverage sector.

The problem is that marketers are woke, the mainstream aren’t. “Their worldview has led them to believe that it is their duty to promote woke causes,”​ Bullick said. To evidence this he cited 'The Empathy Delusion' by Andrew Tenzer and Ian Murray based on a comparison of over 2,000 marketing professionals which highlights the ‘many ways that marketers are out of touch with, and disregard, the values, aspirations of the mainstream’.

That’s all good and well in the Twitter echo chamber. Tweets cost brands next to nothing and their followers won’t in the main be brand users. The problem is that it’s easier to make more enemies of consumers than friends through promoting social causes.

“The balance of evidence suggests it has the potential for more brand harm than good,”​ explained Bullick.

Yes, if 68% of consumers are uneasy about it, 32% want brands to support woke causes, right? Wrong, said Bullick. “Research suggests that those who agree with your stance are unaffected from a purchasing point of view. Those that don’t will avoid your brand.”

Bullick started his career at Procter & Gamble in the 1980s. “I have watched the brand purpose saga unfold with weary amazement,”​ he wrote in the research.

“What I saw from the start was brand managers bringing their personal worldview, or even their politics to the brands they were advertising. This could never have happened back in the day, it would have been seen as laughably unprofessional. But in some major brand houses it has not only become the norm, but preached as best practice. What on earth has happened?”

Has he just got old? Maybe. The survey, for example, revealed that Gen Z were three times more favourable to woke causes than Baby Boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964 during the post–World War II baby boom). Women were nearly twice as much in favour of brands supporting social causes than men.

But we don’t know to what extent this translates to buying behaviour. “You have to be careful about muddling generational effects with cohort effects,”​ stated Bullick, adding: “Young people have always been idealistic and cause-driven. Young people grow up though.”

No offense, but young people have always been a bit flaky too. Millennials and Gen Z waste more food (if food waste were a country, it would have the third-biggest carbon footprint after the US and China) than Baby Boomers, a survey from fridge seller Currys has just revealed.

If you’re going to talk the talk… then walk the walk  

There are serious skills gaps in the food industry, and I get it that brands might want to flirt with worthy causes to attract younger talent into their ranks. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diversity and inclusion. My point is this: practice what you preach. Do it because you mean it. Not just for social media high fives.

“Consumers can smell inauthenticity a mile off,”​ observed Bullick. “Authenticity is key.”

Case in point, the aforementioned Burger King Pride Burger was accused of rainbow washing -- when companies show support for LGBTQ+ rights in their adverts without actually contributing to the community -- and eventually pulled.

And, if you are genuine, there’s no need to preach about it. Premier Foods caused a media hoo-hah recently when it announced it was offering staff ‘trans inclusivity’ training. But lost beneath the headlines was the news the company will also offer menopause coaching sessions. It might be joked they’re all sitting pretty in their expensive houses, but older people, particularly women, often feel invisible and marginalized. So thank you Premier Foods.

This was touched on by the Pull Agency survey too. The clumsy representation of race grates with people. “The un-thinking addition of ethnic, and in particular mixed-race couples, is seen by consumers as an ‘easy win’ for lazy advertisers,”​ Bullick wrote. Advertisers need to be more imaginative in dealing with representations of the actuality of UK population diversity. “The largest group in our research by far – 43% – chose the option that brands should simply reflect the real users of the brand including older and disabled ones,” ​he wrote.

Consumers used to find ads entertaining,”​ lamented Bullick. Marketers now want to tell consumers how they should think.

They really shouldn’t.

Back to Ben & Jerry’s for instance. I pass no comment on the UK government policy on sending refugees to Rwanda. But neither should you. I have an opinion. It might be the same as yours. The point is I can make up own my mind without a sermon from ice cream company marketeers. Your job is to sell me ice cream.

I’ve been watching drink brand Ribena’s new adverts featuring a man nervously attempting to parallel park his car under the eye of some highly critical and judgemental cats. These adverts are smart, silly and funny. They don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s soaring inflation, a cost of living crisis and a war in Europe. People want to be cheered the hell up. So thank you too Ribena.

#This aticle was updated on 10 July 2022 to cite The Empathy Delusion' by Andrew Tenzer and Ian Murray

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1 comment

Gen Z & Y

Posted by Tim,

Good points about youth involvement with woke causes. If Gen Z and Y were really so woke why is it that (where I live in Singapore and I'm sure it's the same elsewhere) affluent city workers support single-use plastic every day in the lunchtime choices - and have massive carbon footprints caused by holiday choices, transport choices, food-waste habits, clothing, gadgets etc.
The problem is that these are the generations that are running the marketing for consumer goods companies - as well as writing the editorials in the news that we all see - so we are forced to buy into their woke green-washing viewpoints

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