Why brands shouldn’t try and please everyone

Only 7% of relationships in the UK are interracial which is a bit of a surprise given the number of ads that feature interracial couples. If advertising is meant to be representative of the real world is that a bit of overkill?

That might sound controversial, but while diversity in marketing is of course important, are brands over doing it in their desire to be all things to all people?

The recent John Lewis ad for home insurance is a case in point.  Many people felt it was ‘agenda-pushing’ and appropriating trans culture for no other reason than to be ‘woke’. And yet in trying to be ‘woke’, it failed, and even worse featured gender stereotypes (boy creates mess; girl clears up) so simply succeeded in alienating vast numbers of their customer base.

It feels like brands are between a rock and a hard place. Yes, they need to reflect the world we live in and acknowledge the full breadth of diversity, but again and again brands fail as they simply try too hard and inevitably get it wrong.

We take a look at why brands should stop trying to be everything to everyone.

The societal pressure on brands

You can’t blame brands for trying to please everyone, especially when you consider everything else going on in society.

Children’s books in the Cambridge University archive are being given ‘trigger warnings’ about ‘harmful content relating to slavery, colonialism and racism’, while the BBC has added disclaimers to popular comedy shows to tell viewers if the show includes something offensive, inappropriate or outdated. (All of those terms apply to Mrs Brown’s Boys and yet it’s running until 2026!)

And just last month, Oxfam pulled a card game featuring ‘inspirational women’ as it did not ‘respect people of all genders’. This is partly because the game featured actor Elliot Page’s birth name. The game was released in August 2020, but the actor came out as transgender in December 2020 at which point he changed his name from Ellen to Elliot. But maybe it would have been more powerful if Oxfam had kept the game available. After all, it shows a woman in the public eye not only brave enough to go through transition, but also to speak out publicly about the experience.  Couldn’t that be classed as inspiring?

But pulling the game was probably the easier option, since it also featured JK Rowling and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who have both been criticised for comments on transgender people.

But then again should brands be bowing to societal pressure? Their views might be contentious, but they are both inspiring women in their own way. Once again, a rock and a hard place beckons.

The curse of woke-washing

Given how difficult it seems to get it right, not doing anything seems to be a good option. But reports show that 1 in 2 people will switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues and that brands are more trusted than government. The reality is brands are in a powerful position to help drive real change, so it’s good business sense for them to take a stance.

But like all good marketing, it’s important any stance aligns with a brand’s values, how they operate and how they are perceived by their consumers and stakeholders.

Simply jumping on the latest social issue because they think they should is nothing more than woke-washing – taking advantage of a situation to show a so-called social conscience but without any commitment to making any discernible changes. And the public will notice!

Nike was praised for its campaign with Colin Kaepernick regarding peaceful protests and racism, but they also ran a campaign fronted by Serena Williams to challenge the attitude to women in sport. The only problem – they didn’t provide paid maternity leave to Alysia Montano, one of their sponsored runners.

And while Audi’s 2017 Super Bowl ad backing equal pay won them plaudits, there was quite a backlash when it was revealed just two out of their 14 executives were women.

Of course, one of the best recent examples of woke-washing is how brands reacted to the Black Lives Matter movement which gained traction following the death of George Floyd in 2020.  L’Oréal might have expressed their solidarity, but just 3 years earlier had dropped Munroe Bergdof for speaking out about racism and white supremacy. Then there was Disney, who despite saying they stand against racism, shrunk black actor John Boyega on the Star Wars’ posters for release in China so he’s barely visible. The list goes on.

Of course, some brands got it right such as Ben & Jerry’s. Rather than just stating that they ‘stand with the Black community’, but not actually saying how (like most brands), they called for 4 concrete actions to happen, including asking the Department of Justice to reinvigorate its Civil Rights Division. But probably more tellingly is four years previously Ben & Jerry’s had stated their support for Black Lives Matter, so this wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to the George Floyd murder. What they did was not only completely in line with their values as a company, but they also thought through properly how they could help bring about change. And that’s the key – if you are going to take a stance, make sure it’s authentic, make sure it includes tangible actions or don’t bother.

Brand hypocrisy is having a negative impact on marketing

And this quest to please everyone isn’t just damaging to a brand’s reputation, it’s also damaging marketing as a whole. As Unilever CEO Alan Jope put it, woke-washing is ‘polluting purpose’ and helping destroy trust in marketing. And you can see why when you consider the cynicism and backlash against brands who are trying too hard and being accused not just of woke-washing, but also racewashing, greenwashing and pinkwashing.

Take the recent documentary on Shell by Joe Lycett. He accused them of greenwashing as their marketing efforts focus on their eco-friendly initiatives when in fact they are still heavily into oil exploration. But isn’t that just an example of good marketing? They aren’t hiding what they are doing, simply promoting an area of the business they want consumers to know more about.

And that’s the problem – over the last few years too many companies have been called out for their hypocrisy, which means all marketing is starting to be tainted with the same brush. It’s why to an increasingly cynical public the proliferation of interracial couples in TV ads simply seems to be a sign of brands trying too hard.

Remember the consumer

While including diversity in marketing and having a social conscience is a must for companies, brands must not forget who they are talking to – the consumer.  It’s easy to get too caught up in the marketing bubble and end up being too woke or too representative simply because it’s the thing to do at a particular moment in time. But if it doesn’t align with your brand’s values, or is simply playing lip-service how can it be right?

It’s about remembering what marketing is all about, namely reaching the right person with the right message in the right way at the right time.  It’s not about jumping on the latest bandwagon just because everyone else is. It’s not about including interracial couples in every campaign because it’s the thing to do. It’s about being true to both your brand’s values and your customers and accepting you’ll never please everyone. Do that and the rest will follow.