HUL dropping ‘Fair’! Have brands suddenly developed a conscience?

A summary of recent major change in behavior by large brands around the world:

1. Would a brand voluntarily disclose that their food item is unhealthy? Nestle does!

2. Unilever pledges to market its products targeted at children differently.

3. OLAY is making a commitment to zero skin retouching in all advertising by 2021.

4. And the most recent and popular example – HUL changing the name of Fair & Lovely!

There are brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s in the US that have founders who strongly believe in a cause. And so the brands follow the same path, to the extent that every employee follows suit too. But there are very few brands that can inculcate the founders’ belief as the brands’ belief of a way to do business too.

Most brands follow the money. And they do so by striking a balance where they are least likely to annoy the largest segment of their target audience and say the most obvious things to keep them happy and satiated.

Corporate philosophies like Google’s famous ‘Do no evil’ are just too unidimensional to pass scrutiny over many, many issues, and the fact that many Google employees gather in visible digital protests these days says a lot about how much they have moved away from that motto.

In short, the social responsibility of a brand, when it comes to contentious issues, is unfortunately and very un-idealistically, to agree with the majority of their vocal target buyers. This ‘vocal’ set of target buyers are all too visible these days thanks to social media.

The brand exists to make money.

And there’s nothing wrong with making money through all the appropriately legitimate methods.

In creating a market that values ‘whiter’ skin color over other shades (that are actually predominant in a country like India), or sell products that could cause obesity, load the products with addictive sugar or use deceptively retouched photos for beauty products’ marketing, these brands have accentuated the fissures in the society. By making their end result (whiter skin, thin figure, addictive sugar) more wanted and crave-worthy.

But this want that they exploit is inherent to our society – they cannot sell something that we buyers do not have an interest in. They could only persuade us to perform an action based on our own proclivities and predispositions that brands find out from market research.

To be sure, Unilever or Olay is being forced to perform these changes. They are simply finding that their product or marketing, that they hammered into our consciousness with millions of dollars across many decades, is a vestige of an earlier period where people did not have a voice to disagree with loudly. Now, they do.

The discourse has 2 variables. On one side, they have people continuing to silently buy the products and buy into the marketing (which is sales, at the end). On the other, they find a small set of consumers being vocal with their annoyance and disagreement about products and narratives set by brands. Sales dollars vs. vocal displeasure.

The sales part is not a force-multiplier for consumers, only for the brands, as a sign that they need to produce more and sell more. But the vocal displeasure is like the ‘idea’ explained in Christopher Nolan’s Inception:

“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea! Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. It can grow to define or destroy you.” —Dominick ‘Dom’ Cobb, Inception

This is less of a watershed moment for brands with regard to product names or marketing, and more of a watershed moment for consumer feedback. Brands find themselves to be in a position where they don’t have any option but to listen since the clamor is so loud.



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