Brands That Dare To Offend

Tiffany, Levis, Intel, and a slew of other brands ran ads recently in support of America’s continued participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

I wonder how many consumers are going to stop buying diamonds, jeans, and PCs.

Remember, lots of Americans don’t believe in climate change, and even more just assume it won’t affect them. Won’t they find these ads offensive?

Of course, at one level it’s just a publicity stunt. Tiffany’s stand-alone ad, and a larger group version, were both addressed “Dear President Trump,” in some faux petition format. The  content wasn’t anything new, and neither ad was terribly creative or compelling.

So maybe people will just write them off, the same way they do stunts like Super Bowl ads or inane viral campaigns. It’s unlikely that the President will respond. The ads are disposable political correctness.

But I think they serve a deeper purpose.

They’re markers. Stakes in the ground. Signposts for future reference.

Already, a segment of consumers hold the businesses behind their favorite brands accountable for policies on sourcing, manufacturing, and even personnel policies. They look for labels ensuring their tuna is “dolphin safe,” or a cup of coffee is “fair trade.”

The phenomena is larger than simply ethnical consumerism, which you could dismiss as just another set of selling attributes; the cologne that promised to make me irresistible to women when I was a teenager now needs to affirm that it wasn’t tested on animals, so it’s just trading one marketing pitch for another (I think it would be a mistake, though).

Products and services need to do more than they used to do.

I’m not talking about increasing the surfactant power of dishwashing liquid, but rather make a difference on issues that matter in peoples’ lives. Community. Jobs and opportunity. Families. Health. The environment.

People don’t only look to buy things that weren’t produced in ways that damaged the world, but want to contribute to helping improve it through their purchases.

It’s not enough for businesses to just avoid doing bad; they have to actively do good.

Marketers have done their best to exploit and otherwise pollute this public sentiment. CSR, greenwashing, and other efforts to attach brands to such issues via symbolic gestures have had the net effect of ruining trust in businesses (or anything CEOs say).

There’s a populist pushback simmering just below the happy reports on social responsibility marketing campaign clicks and shares.

Tiffany & Co. is an unlikely advocate for action on climate change. I’m not privy to its consumer research, but I can’t imagine its typical big ticket jewelry customer is influenced by the company’s commitment to LED lights in its stores.

But maybe it is making a bet that it will matter, in time.

Better yet, perhaps it’s simply doing what its management believes is the right thing to do, at risk of offending some customers in the process. The company’s web site is filled with its action on sustainability.

Maybe all of the companies signing the ads are preparing for the day when their customers look for proof of “support for climate action” on their product labels, and being early on the right side of a populist issue will carry commensurate credibility and value. Also, doing what’s right may simply be the right thing to do.

Conversely, those businesses that do nothing may find themselves up to their knees in hot water, both figurative and not.

Will we be offended sometime soon by businesses that didn’t take action to address climate change, let alone sponsor the ads?