A view from Kate Magee

Why brands should do more and say less

Being good is the goal for every brand.

When Kraft removed all the artificial ingredients from its Macaroni & Cheese product, it did one surprising thing: kept schtum. It did so on the advice of its agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, after getting negative feedback from parents who were concerned their children wouldn’t eat the tweaked recipe.

Three months after it had quietly released the new product, which had sold as much as its predecessor, Kraft publicly announced the switch, with the line: "We’d invite you to try it, but you already have."

This story demonstrates one of the difficulties facing companies that try to "do good": people like the idea in theory, but not if it inconveniences them in practice. So sometimes the solution is not to talk about it. It’s a lesson that companies would be wise to learn, because being socially and environmentally responsible is now a hygiene factor for business. 

As Nicola Kemp explains eloquently in her piece on humane capitalism, there is "a race to the top and innovative brands are in the starting blocks".

It is no longer enough for a company to offset the damage it does in its core business by having a disconnected CSR department. That is an active reputational risk. It has also been proven that a sustainable approach can pay dividends in the long run by cutting costs, improving efficiencies and engaging employees. But communicating all this to consumers is a trickier problem. 

Both Nike and Puma have suffered disappointment in this area – Nike’s eco-friendly walking shoes in 2005 were poorly received, while Puma shelved the R&D budget for its sustainable clothing range last year following low demand. Their mistake was to promote sustainability as the top attribute – people tend to consider performance, not ecology, when buying sports gear. In fact, for some categories such as cleaning products, an eco-friendly label may raise suspicions over the product’s efficacy. Nike still works on sustainable innovation but doesn’t make it the main selling point. As Nike’s Lorrie Vogel said in 2009: "We want to do more and say less."

After endless cycles of greenwashing, people are cynical about campaigns that claim to do good.  

A media diet of badly behaved politicians, business figures and celebrities has also made us less trusting of authority figures. The artifice surrounding glamorous movie stars from the past, about which Jim Carroll writes, would be pierced within hours on social media today. And the slightest hint of hypocrisy will destroy a carefully crafted narrative, as Jeremy Corbyn and Ryan Lochte both recently discovered. 

There is a new contract being drawn up between businesses and consumers. As Marks & Spencer’s Mike Barry writes, brands need to start acting as a trusted friend, and that means not spilling your secrets (selling personal data) or sponging off you (evading taxes). 

Companies should focus more on being – rather than being seen to be – good citizens. As the Under Armour spot, in which Michael Phelps toils in the shadows to achieve his Olympic dreams, concludes: it’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.