Has socially responsible marketing gone too far?

Coca-Cola spectacularly failed to position itself as the ambassador of world peace

I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that brands are rushing in bigger numbers to attach themselves to the latest worthy cause or issue in the hope that we think better of them by association, rather than selling themselves on any worthwhile brand benefits. But this really did become apparent when judging the Direct category at the recent Eurobest awards.

I even found myself puzzled as to what half the ads that we judged were trying to sell.

This isn’t necessarily a new trend – it just seems to be getting more out of hand. Everyone can remember when Coca-Cola spectacularly failed to position itself as the ambassador of world peace. However, I recently saw a lesser-known cola brand try to identify itself as ambassador of tolerance. Step forward German Brand Ali Cola, which, in its own words, is 'the first cola that comes in a variety of skin colours. Different on the outside, same on the inside. Just like people.”

It’s been applauded by many, and picked up a few gongs, but please. I’m glad to say it wasn’t shortlisted in our category at Eurobest because it’s so obviously made more for awards than sales. But, while I roll my eyes, there are plenty more nodding their heads in approval.

Brand activity like this seems to play on the middle-class guilt that is rife in our industry. The guilt at agencies and among awards juries that we must do more, at all times, to address massive and fundamentally complex issues. Thankfully I don’t possess the same levels of this middle-class guilt, and so feel able to say that I find it patronising and, in most cases, a bad fit.

Who are these brands to attach themselves to these vital moral causes? In many cases, they have questionable backgrounds and are deploying blatant PR stunts that are as obvious as politicians kissing babies.

I’m far more impressed by companies such as Innocent, which, despite being owned by Coca-Cola, continues to make social awareness integral to its brand rather than an unseemly hop on the latest bandwagon. My feelings are pretty much summed up through an adaptation of my favourite headline from The Economist: ‘If you just do things for show, eventually it does’.

There’s a solution to all this irrelevant do-goodery. Marketing departments should concentrate on what they’re paid to do – building brands and delivering a return on investment, rather than piggy-backing every topical moral cause. And agencies have a big responsibility here too. It’s high time we took our role as advisers and partners more seriously, helping our clients do the right things for their brands, instead of chasing the glitter of awards at all costs.

Shaun Moran is chief creative and founding partner at Soul

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.