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Cuddly capitalism

28 Feb 2020  |  David Pidgeon 
Cuddly capitalism

As the institutions supposed to protect people fail, capitalists have found a gap in the market, writes David Pidgeon

It's easy to be cynical about 'brand purpose'. In fact, when any brand – a business with things to sell – starts getting touchy-feely and linking social causes with its business strategy, you often need only look just below the surface to realise it's a load of crap.

An obvious example is Shell (or BP) which is trying to convince millennials it is a progressive business with its Make the Future Clean energy push (easily rubbished), or the numerous retailers and fashion brands flogging 'feminist' T-shirts in the wake of the Me Too movement - but had them made by women on slave wages. The list is truly endless.

The fact of the matter is, capitalism is a dirty business, and if you want to make it good, then you’re going to have to try much, much harder. And after years of energy-draining cynicism, we think we’re finally being persuaded that some big businesses really are walking the walk. Either that, or we’ve just gone soft.

This week ISBA held its annual conference, and two giants – P&G and Unilever – genuinely started to change our minds on this subject.

In fact, Unilever's executive vice president of global media, Luis Di Como (pictured below), said something the teenage anarchists in us never thought we’d hear: he warned that the public was growing so weary of capitalism’s role in the world that it was a business imperative to do good. And not in some wishy-washy, marketing campaign sort-of-way. But in a systemic fashion, covering the entire supply chain.

To that end, consumers, employees and society at large were as important as the company's shareholders.

P&G feels the same – and marketing director Katharine Joy Newby Grant (pictured top) said helping tackle social problems even transcended competitive borders.

"If you want to change the world, everyone has to do it," she said, applauding her rival for adopting similar strategies.

The thing is, P&G's ads make people cry - we watched the audience reaction to the show reel.

Newby Grant even became visibly emotional discussing some of P&G's work - which includes tackling period poverty in the UK, giving excluded young men better opportunities through sport, supplying the NHS with specialist nappies for premature babies, and opening up a national dialogue about adult incontinence.

But what is really fascinating about all this is that, in the age of austerity, the market appears to have responded by picking up where governments have failed.

P&G and Unilever both spoke of their desire to fix social problems in the same week the UK's life expectancy rate dropped, with austerity blamed by many commentators.

As the institutions supposed to protect people fail, capitalists have found a gap in the market – and if they're serious about doing it right, then we're witnessing a genuine evolution.

They don't get everything right, and it's still easy to poke holes - but many brands do seem to be becoming more human, and to be human is to be inconsistent and fallible.

But whatever is happening, let's hope it's not all just smoke and mirrors.


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