Costa is showing other brands how to manage culture war backlash
The Drum’s editor-in-chief and co-founder Gordon Young has been monitoring the bubbling backlash around Costa’s inclusion of a trans person on a mural. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
The culture war continues to heat up in the UK. Costa Coffee has come under fire for using a bare-chester illustration of a trans man on a delivery van. Taken from a larger Pride mural, the simplistic graphic bore the post-op scars of a double mastectomy.
It is reported that some parties are now calling for a Costa boycott. However, their anger is likely to be in direct proportion to the Pride community’s support. The issue once again proves that the laws of science apply to marketing after all – every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
However, for at least a decade or so, it was not obvious the metaphorical laws of nature applied to social purpose marketing. Such pushback was rare to the extent that CSRing, ESGing and DEIing appeared risk-free activities. But something has changed and now brands are being criticized for the sort of purpose-led activity that a few months ago would have seen them being lauded.
One of the highest-profile examples was Bud Light. Its bungled social media partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney was followed by a 23% sales drop. And in the UK, we had the weird story of one of the world’s most exclusive banks wanting to burnish its inclusive credentials by excluding divisive politician Nigel Farage.
The episode ended with the resignation of the bank’s CEO as well as the CEO of its holding company NatWest. But even as I write, as well as Costa, German retailer Penny was coming under fire. It was temporarily doubling the price of some products – including wiener pork sausages – to create awareness of the hidden environmental cost of groceries. Consumer watchdog Foodwatch said: “While Penny demands the true prices for just nine products, the discounter simultaneously pushes (down) the prices for other environmentally harmful foods to a minimum.“
So why are these efforts supposedly seeing bigger backlashes?
On one level the media is now more prepared to give a voice to those who have never accepted the consensus around the big ESG issues; a trend that has been turbo-charged by Coutts in the UK.
But particularly when it comes to the environment, many issues are simply becoming more controversial as consumers realize the true cost – and governments start to appreciate the impact in terms of their vote share. Politicians in Sweden, Germany, France as well as the UK are looking to water down green commitments for fear of being punished at the polls. And brands are beginning to fear being punished at the tills.
As a result, many will be looking to tone down their purpose rhetoric and increase focus on their core business. And there is nothing wrong with that. The most important CSR contribution any company can make is to provide a great product to its customers and generate a healthy profit. That way it will not only be able to look after its team but pay its fair share of tax.
Some brands will want to remain active in the realms of social purpose. If they do, however, they will now need to choose causes which they are prepared to fight for. In many ways, that is a test Bud Light failed. After the Mulvaney row, it put the executives behind the stunt on leave and the CEO issued a sort of apologetic non-apology: “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.”
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However, it looks like Costa has the courage of its conviction: “At Costa Coffee, we celebrate the diversity of our customers, team members and partners. We want everyone that interacts with us to experience the inclusive environment that we create to encourage people to feel welcome, free and unashamedly proud to be themselves. The mural, in its entirety, showcases and celebrates inclusivity.”
It was a good response.
But the fact that even inclusivity can be so divisive underlines that a purpose-led strategy no longer means universal acclaim. These are serious issues that can expose brands to serious risk. Proceed with caution.