OXON HILL, MD — As accusations of woke-washing in marketing grow, brands are being warned to approach touchy political and social subjects more deliberately, and only pair their campaigns with causes that align closely with their core product. While some degree of risk management is necessary, too much caution could actually be hampering opportunities for businesses looking to preserve relevance, according to Ben & Jerry's CEO Matthew McCarthy.
"I don't cringe at [cause marketing]," McCarthy, who took the helm of Ben & Jerry's last year, said at 3BL Media's 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands — What's Next conference on Tuesday. "The only thing I cringe at is when business leaders are not taking action, and they have somehow convinced themselves that by waiting, or researching it or whatever the hell it is that they're going to do, that they're going to take action."
The current messy political climate and enduring issues spanning the environmental crisis to the rise of populism are scary, McCarthy acknowledged, but also serve as a chance for brands to step up and solve problems, especially as trust in other institutions shrinks. A recent Edelman survey indicates that 54% of consumers believe it's easier to get businesses to address social issues than the government.
Speaking at a conference centered not only on devising purposeful business strategies, but also getting leadership to buy into them, McCarthy nodded to the idea that enacting such changes internally can be difficult and a hard economic case to make. But it might also be an essential one as societal problems worsen and consumers look to support organizations that try to enact positive change.
"Usually, conversations around why businesses are struggling on the business side are separate from its social purpose or its mission. In fact, they are fused," McCarthy said. "We need a much more aggressive approach within our organizations of getting the folks who have the privilege of leading them to listen and take action, and if they don't, get rid of them or go somewhere else."
Going against the grain
Wasting time trying to find the perfect brand-cause fit was among the chief "blockers" McCarthy highlighted as impeding brands that are looking to tap into purpose's potential.
"What does ice cream have to with structural racism and social justice? Not a lot, except that we care about it and our team cares about it," McCarthy said.
His push for a carefree approach contrasts with other business leaders who have recently warned that proper fit is essential, and that poorly aligned purpose can degrade consumer trust. Interestingly, one of the biggest critics of misaligned purpose has been Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, the company that owns Ben & Jerry's. Like McCarthy, Jope views that there is too much talk and too little tangible action from businesses addressing timely issues.
McCarthy's championing of a more liberal attitude as a solution isn't surprising: Ben & Jerry's has had a famously progressive bent since its 1978 founding by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.
That reputation endured after the company was acquired nearly two decades ago. Though there was an adjustment period in the years immediately after the Unilever takeover, McCarthy said that the CPG giant's infrastructure opened up access — Ben & Jerry's is now sold in 38 countries — and helped amplify its messages.
McCarthy noted that one of the reasons Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's was for its distinctive brand positioning, which would be diminished without its more outspoken qualities.
"Our fans do expect us, and hold us accountable, to doing the right thing," he said.
On that front, fretting over how to divide resources and investments between a brand's purpose and its core product is another barrier too many executives encounter, McCarthy said.
"It's a completely flawed logic," he added. "In fact, forget about your core and spend on purpose — I guarantee your fans will thank you."
Delegating purpose responsibilities solely to marketing departments or dedicated CSR teams was another critical flaw the executive called out, noting how that can lead to blind spots around where the strategy would most benefit a business.
"One of the biggest opportunities for impact is to our supply chain," McCarthy said.
Fear of failure
That's not to say Ben & Jerry’s has a perfect score card on the purpose front. The brand stepped even further than it usually does into the political sphere last year around the midterm elections, looking to combat an administration McCarthy described as having "backward" and "regressive" policies.
As a form of corporate protest, Ben & Jerry's launched a limited-batch flavor called Pecan Resist and pledged to donate $25,000 to four activist organizations, including the Women's March. Even with what McCarthy described as a "boatload of risk management work," aspects of the campaign stirred unintended controversy.
At the time, some organizers of the Women's March were accused of holding anti-Semitic views — claims amplified by right-wing media outlets that took to criticizing Ben & Jerry's, according to McCarthy. The Women's March leaders were quick to denounce religious discrimination, and Ben & Jerry's shared their reaction in a press release while affirming support for the group.
"The threat can pop up anywhere. We just tried to face into it. We didn't shrink backward," McCarthy said.
McCarthy reinforced that arriving at a desired business destination usually requires a "good wipeout," especially when wading into tricky territory like purpose.
"Getting criticized is just part of it, and I consider it a barometer of our success," McCarthy said. "We're not setting out to piss people off. But at the same time, if we're not getting some flak, we're probably not pushing hard enough."