Consumer brands: time to do some soul-searching

Lunice Johnston, founder, Lunice Johnston Communications

The potential strength of consumer activism spoke loud and clear in the 6% drop in the Clicks share price, from R239 to R225, in the wake of the insulting hair products advert it posted on its website last week.

It sends a clear message to corporations: sensitivity to your customers is key to your reputation, which is key to your sustainability.

Clicks evoked widespread fury by showing an advertisement on its website for TRESemmé hair products, with pictures that described black hair as “dry and damaged” and “frizzy and dull”, contrasting with blonde Caucasian hair which was “fine and flat” and “normal”.

Clicks is not the first or only consumer brand culprit to violate the dignity of its black customers, but it should have learnt from previous debacles.

In October 2017, Dove, manufacturer of personal care products, also aroused social media outrage when it flighted an advert showing a black woman turning white after using its soap. In early 2018, Swedish clothing retailer H&M caused an outcry with a photograph of a black man modelling a hoodie with the logo “coolest monkey in the jungle”. Soon afterwards, luxury brand Gucci had to apologise after an advert showed a woman wearing a black poloneck/balaclava combo with a cutout of red lips, which was labelled “blackface”.

One commentator told Gucci that “If you hire more black people and cultivate an environment where people on all levels of the company feel comfortable to speak up, incidents like this will be avoided”.

Clicks Group CEO Vikesh Ramsunder has made an abject apology, acknowledging the images were “insensitive and offensive”. He says the negligent employees have been suspended and the group will be intensifying its diversity and inclusion training. However, the Economic Freedom Fighters intend to continue their demonstrations against Clicks stores this week.

Although I do not condone the EFF’s approach, I have little sympathy for Clicks or TRESemmé (who supplied the images). If they had ensured the staff responsible for advertising – whether agency or in-house – was racially diversified, they would never have come up with those labels.

All too often, advertising agencies are more concerned with ensuring pictures and taglines are attention-grabbing and fail to see the message behind those images. Those messages are influential. Many consumers can remember a punchy tagline or meme, even after the name of the product is forgotten.

Suspending or sacking an agency, or a couple of junior employees, is not the solution. Accountability goes all the way to the top. Diversity training is important, but it must be done properly. According to a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article in July-August 2016, “people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance—and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward”.

Clicks needs to adopt a combination of solutions, and one of those is to revisit the seven pillars of reputation management. These are based on four emotional indicators: trust, appreciation, admiration and good feelings. Measuring a company’s reputation is based on surveying respondents’ emotional reaction to the company’s products, innovation, workplace, governance, citizenship, leadership and performance.

Unfortunately, reputation management is now too often associated with employing a “spin doctor” to help a company get through a crisis. Effective reputation management is a long-term game – and perhaps executives would pay more attention to it if they incorporated it (with real sincerity) into their broader risk strategy.

In another HBR article, in February 2007, on “Reputation and its Risk”, the authors argued that executives’ responsibility to protect the company’s reputation is as important as ensuring operational performance is optimal, since both drive shareholder value.

Clicks’ recent share price fall bears that out. And although the shares are already starting to bounce back, in the longer term they may fail to keep up with their peers in the retail sector if sales suffer as a result of consumer boycotts or influential fund managers believe the company is not fully committed to good reputation management.

HBR recommends that reputation be measured in ways that are contextual, objective and preferably quantitative, and this can be done both through customer surveys and through the media. Analysing media coverage has moved beyond the basic tool of using a clipping service. There are more sophisticated media intelligence tools available today. Then that intelligence needs to become the basis of a more effective investor and corporate relations strategy, which should be overseen by the CEO, CFO or COO – a top executive with an objective outlook and access to resources who can co-ordinate action across all departments. The head of marketing does not have those powers.

“Senior executives tend to be optimists and cheerleaders. Their natural inclination is to believe the praise heaped on their companies and to discount the criticism. But looking at the world and one’s organization through rose-tinted glasses is an abdication of responsibility,” HBR says.

Sustainability is not a new concept. For a decade or more, corporations have trumpeted their commitment to protect the environment, ensure the well-being of their communities and adhere to the highest standards of corporate morality. So it is extraordinary that they are still guilty of offending their core customers through careless actions that may reverberate for years.