Let’s have a lot less value washing and a lot more action…

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

I’m writing this just after the end of Pride month and if I listen very carefully I can hear the sound of social media managers from across the western world taking down their specially prepared rainbow-tinted logos. It was audible due to the sheer speed that this takes place each and every year.

Why do I even care about this? In fact, you are probably asking yourself why you’re even reading this – and both are good questions, but stick with me as I want to talk about authenticity and the pitfall of value washing your brand. 

What is Value Washing?

When a person or organisation uses a political or cultural movement for their promotional activities but doesn’t act on or systemically support the ethos of the movement, that is value washing. 

This isn’t to say that I don’t agree with or celebrate brands that showcase their commitment to ideals, especially Pride, but it has to be more than changing their logo to have a rainbow filter over the top of their existing brand for 4 weeks in early summer. The same is true for important movements that have risen to prominence over recent weeks, especially Black Lives Matter.

Yes, the urge to be relevant and part of the narrative of major events feels important. This always needs to be balanced with what you are doing this for, and if it is only for shallow reasons, with no meaning or actions, you will instead be in a position of value washing your brand and this is detrimental to your long-term brand position.

Why Your Brand Shouldn’t Value Wash

  • Your audience sees right through it – not authentic
  • You will create more questions – what have you done to support, what haven’t you done before?
  • Is your brand in a position to support this cause? Have you always had the same position on the subject in question?

Without any activism or engagement in the cause, you run the risk of looking tokenistic. Indeed, if your brand has a less than savoury history in certain aspects (see Llyod’s of London and their connection to the slave trade) then your promotional use of a movement could backfire spectacularly – and rightly so! 

Think of it this way, if you are a retailer or a visitor experience you wouldn’t just wish all your customers a Merry Christmas on 25th December. No, you would spend months planning your activity – the products, the services, the experiences and ensure everything was in a place with a plan. This plan would link to tangible actions and supported by robust procedures.

Indeed, you would just limit your action to just placing two candy cane emojis next to your brand name on social media and call it Christmas. You would do more, a lot more.

It’s About Action

This is all feeling a little negative, isn’t it? And I don’t want you to feel I don’t support brands that are acting responsibly. I really do – but do you know why? Because they are doing something.

So, let’s make a deal, oh patient reader, for the rest of this article I will move away from the negative and instead focus on celebrating the brilliant and inspirational work brands have delivered to both addresses their difficult heritage and showcase the positive steps they are taking to make the world a little better. 

 Natural History Museum

Personally, I love this approach by the Natural History Museum to both celebrating Pride and addressing their institution’s record on engaging with indigenous cultures and race in general and the deep roots of colonialism. 

They are being honest about the issue and making it clear that both know they need to do more and making a promise to do so. It is a deeply complicated issue but by tackling it head-on they have the opportunity to build more supporters and advocates.

Their Pride content caught my eye too, and just because of the beautiful, bright imagery used.

What they have done here is augment their content to celebrate LGBT+ people and their contributions whilst also keeping to their aims of educating and celebrating the wonder of the natural world. The Pride flag is composed of colourful aspects of nature, creating a stunning example of the beauty of the world and the beauty of Pride in one image.

Trixie Cosmetics

You’re thinking to yourself, Drag Queen makeup?! Yes, a successful makeup range, targeted at a female audience and developed and marketed by a superstar Ru Paul’s Drag Race alum (and winner).

Trixie Cosmetics has strong values at the heart of their brand, they have been donating to bee protection charities since their inception and during the recent BLM protests, they took decisive action on their channels.

For such a light-hearted and frivolously fun brand (they have just released a series of YouTube videos where Trixie cooks using a children’s toy – worth a watch) to change their tone so dramatically showcases their true brand values and commitment.

Again, this reads authentic and is backed up by the actions of Trixie Mattel herself on her personal channels. As a TC consumer, you can trust in their activism.

What you can do to support and celebrate

  • Tell their story – promote ways your audience can support the cause
  • Tell your story – tell people what you have done and continue to do to support – the initiatives, the donations, the products that support the donations
  • Make any statement meaningful – speak from the heart and avoid meaningless language
  • Don’t just do it for the day, week or month of the campaign – embed the cause into your communications all-year-round by promoting your continued activism and support

Remember, when you align your brand to a political or philosophical movement it isn’t as easy as celebrating a season – it isn’t placing a filter on your existing logo or placing two Jack O’Lanterns emojis next to your name for Easter (I don’t have anything against emojis or seasonal activity, I hasten to add!).

It is a much deeper, more meaningful act, one that should be authentic and backed up with action. This action doesn’t have to be huge programmes or donations. Instead, it can and should be about the robust HR procedures you have in place to ingrain diversity and inclusion in your organisation or your ethical purchasing policies. Customers do care about things like this, and anything you do will put you above your competitors, so don’t be shy about showcasing what you are proud of and what you can and will improve on.

Of course, I’m all for marketing that cuts above the noise. You should absolutely take advantage of the news cycle, but only when it really means something.

Trust me, your customers and your employees will thank you for it – with loyalty.

Happy advocacy.

Practice what you preach – click here for links on how to support Black Lives Matter.