News analysis: Colgate-Palmolive and the challenges of brand safety vs brand purpose

Today's fractured media landscape has seen brand purpose collide with brand safety

Toothpaste doesn’t immediately spring to mind when thinking of purpose-driven brands that aren’t afraid to take a stand. Yet Colgate-Palmolive Australia’s recent decision to withdraw its advertising from Sky News could be just that.

So has Colgate-Palmolive Australia announced itself as the newest recruit to the ranks of brands like Patagonia, Dove, and lately Nike, who want to stand for something? Or is it more a case of protecting brand safety in a fractured media market?

Kyle Ross, strategist at The Ross Partnership, told CMO he sees it as more to do with brand safety. “It’s not what I would call brand purpose…This is more about brand safety and ensuring Colgate don’t appear in unsavoury places or conversations, than it is about brand purpose.

“Where a brand spends their money, the places they’re seen, the content, the media they’re shown in between, says something about their brand. In the past, there were fewer places to buy media , today it’s far more fragmented. The issue is brands have woken up to the fact their advertising is appearing in environments that don’t necessarily reflect their values,” he said.

It’s clear the complex media landscape is changing the rules for brand safety. David Halter, chief strategy officer of CHE Proximity, spoke to CMO about brand purpose and observed brand safety used to be about [protecting against] being displayed near inappropriate content like porn or terrorism.

"Now it’s about political points of view your brand is being communicated next to," Halter said.

In the case of Colgate, the company promotes its values as: Caring, Global Teamwork and Continuous Improvement. It expresses its value of caring by being committed to 'act with compassion, integrity, honesty and high ethics in all situations, to listen with respect to others and to value differences'.

Halter told CMO he was initially surprised by the Colgate decision, which may be a one-off or part of a shift. He warned for any brand, making purpose-driven decisions can’t be taken in isolation.

“The big challenge with all of this purpose-driven decisioning is, is it going to make a genuine impact on buyer behaviour? I think brands like Dove and Nike have done it over the long term build equity in their position over time. When you commit to it once, you’ve probably got to commit to doing it over a long period of time to have an impact on people.”

Brands still need to appeal to buyers and have a coherent identity, Halter explained.

“The ultimate challenge with a decision like this is, where do you draw the line? How do you deploy a sensible level of governance around it [purpose-driven decisions], which protects consistency but also continues to sell products?

“Know who you’re for and who you’re not for. Absolute clarity of purpose. Examples of this are Nike and Dove. It will focus brand purpose and how your mission is expressed, and when to enter discussions and what you will do and what you won’t do.”

Patagonia is a standout for brand purpose, according to Ross. “They exist to make great products, but do it in a way that does no harm to the environment and they use their influence in the world to influence issues of climate and things associated with the beliefs they care about,” he told CMO.

“Brand purpose is not an ad. It’s woven into the fabric of the business. It’s who the company is. The business knows who they are, which is brand purpose. Brand purpose is just a tool; like all things, you need many tools. It’s not going to be right in all situations for all brands. It can be immensely effective if it’s woven into the fabric of why the business exists and what it sets out to achieve, but it’s not something bolted on at some point just to appear like you’re a better corporate citizen.”

The Colgate move prompted a strong response from Sky News itself, which accused the company of caving in to what it called “anonymous activists”. Supporters and critics of Colgate’s decision took to Twitter to either applaud the company’s decision, or criticise it. Some critics declared they would cease purchasing the global cleaning giants products, which range from personal items like toothpaste and deodorant, to home cleaning and washing products.

On Twitter, consumer activist groups, such as Sleeping Giants Oz, have taken to targeting brands directly through their social media accounts to highlight when their ads appear on websites, TV programs, or other media it says express racist, bigoted, sexist, or offensive views. It encourages supporters to put their money where their mouths are and publicly declare they are not spending on brands deemed to be aligned with offensive or hateful views.

While online consumer activism appeared to play a part in Colgate’s decision, Ross isn’t surprised a toothpaste brand was drawn into it, although he thinks it’s more to do with size than product. 

“It’s very easy for a big brand to become a target. There’s a reason they picked on Colgate.

“Any brand would behave in the same way. It’s a good decision to respond in this way. But there are better ways to go about brand purpose.

“But most big brands today do believe it’s important to behave well in the world. So if they’re using their marketing dollars in ways seen to be endorsing views that are unaligned with progressive ideas, then of course they’re going to make changes,” he said.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu 

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