When “doing good” goes horribly wrong for companies

In an age of social media, instantaneous visibility, sharing, and virality, companies are presented with tremendous opportunities to promote and further social causes, doing good for society and for their own brand images. However, when a company does support a social cause, the following question is often lurking in the back of a discerning consumer’s mind: Why are they really doing this? Is it just a PR stunt? What vested interest does the company have in this cause?

While these discerning consumers may be quite cynical, brands must consider this perspective when they support a social cause. Below are a few guidelines (albeit not a comprehensive list) for companies to follow when pursuing such pursuits.

  1. Ensure an obvious connection between the social cause and your brand image. If consumers think of you as a company that provides sustainable products, it makes sense for charitable efforts to focus on sustainability. If you have bad reputation on sustainability, simply donating some money to environmental groups will likely not make up for this poor reputation and could even exacerbate that reputation. Companies must make sure the social campaign is not contradictory to its principal business efforts.
  2. Be very diligent about the way you chose to describe the campaign. While your goal may very well to improve brand perception and ultimately drive sales (while also doing some good in the world, hopefully), you want to be careful about making a charitable campaign come off as a sales campaign. For example, Pepsi’s Refresh Project was a failure at least in part because of the emphasis on soda in a campaign about small-scale entrepreneurship. As a consumer, when I hear that “soda can change the world,” I am immediately skeptical of the company’s motives. Not to mention the problem that one could argue soda really makes the world a worse place (obesity, diabetes etc), and this is not a tag line Pepsi should emphasize when the company is trying to do good.
  3. Ensure your campaign is focused around a particular goal or cause for which the company has shown passion. Going back to the example in point 1, if your company is very committed to sustainability, your social cause should center around sustainability. You do not also want to build schools in Africa and provide loans for entrepreneurs in the US. A lack of focus will make it seem like the company is just trying to do some charity to improve its brand image. This only makes a consumer skeptical; one might ask, why is this company doing all these seemingly unrelated charitable efforts? For what is it trying to compensate?
  4. Know your partners and do your diligence on their values and mission statements. If it turns out that you partner with an organization that has values antithetical to your own, it is not usually a sufficient defense to say that, “ we didn’t know.”

One example of a company who did not appropriately follow these guidelines and who endured the consequences was Pepsi’s closest competitor, Coke. Coke has recently begun supporting a variety of initiatives promoting exercise and fitness throughout the country. As it turns out, Coke was also funding research placing more emphasis on the role fitness versus caloric intake in maintaining a healthy weight. Let’s analyze Coke on the above criteria: (Source: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/coca-cola-funds-scientists-who-shift-blame-for-obesity-away-from-bad-diets/?_r=0)

  1. Coke is one of the most criticized brands in terms of contributing to the obesity crisis. It is not hard to see how supporting exercise campaigns could be contradictory to the brand’s image.
  2. The campaign did emphasize the importance of exercise but immediately led scientists, nutritionists and consumers to question: what about the importance of diet? It is easy to be suspicious of a company accused of marketing unhealthy foods when they start a wellness campaign that conspicuously excludes the role of diet.
  3. When I think of the Coke brand, I think of fun, family, friends, and sharing good times. I do not think of exercise and fitness. I am skeptical that most consumers most consumers would truly believe that Coke had a passion for exercise and wellness.
  4. Coke partnered with influential scientists, so the company arguably knew what it was doing there. However, the company should have realized that people would probably find out that they helped fund the publication and distribution of much of that cherry-picked research.

All in all, Coke failed to follow the guidelines laid out above, and as a result, suffered backlash both from the scientific community, as well as from consumers.