Unilever boss says "woke-washing" destroys trust, says all its brands must have purpose

With Unilever’s long-standing commitment to sustainability and ethical practices, its been among the most pro-active in promoting diversity, inclusivity and sustainable production. But this week its CEO Alan Jope  spoke out about “woke-washing” saying that using language and imagery linked to worthy causes to increase sales could backfire. And he also said that he expects all of Unilever’s brand to have a purposeful approach with the threat of selling them off if they don’t fit the bill. 


Alan Jope is calling for brands to have purpose but also to be genuinely committed

Jope, a former marketer who ran the personal care/beauty division before his elevation to chief executive, told journalists at the ad industry’s Cannes Lions event this week: “We will dispose of brands that we feel are not able to stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny, your skin soft, your clothes whiter or your food tastier.” Although he added that brands will have time to adjust to the new regime, The Drum reported.

It’s an interesting approach that goes against decades of history in which a brand’s main focus was indeed to make hair shinier or skin softer, as long as it made lots of money in the process.

Jope added: “We have acquired €2.8 billion of turnover, all purposeful brands, and we have disposed of €4 billion of turnover from brands that we think don’t have a long-term proposition and are stuck in low-growth categories.”

Many of the acquired brands have been in the beauty category which means Unilever now has a basket of some very interesting new brands alongside its venerable names. It’s unclear which brands might be in the firing line, although some look safe. The company owns Dove, Pond’s, Simple, Sunsilk, Axe/Lynx and a raft of newer beauty brands such as Dollar Shave Club, Hourglass, Tatcha, Garancia, REN, Murad, and Dermalogica. Many of these younger brands are recent acquisitions and have been bought with a strong USP in mind. Meanwhile Dove has a powerful message of inclusivity and Axe/Lynx has pivoted completely from its former sexualised advertising to a much more inclusive tone. However, Jope did say that the Caress bodywash brand is struggling but the company is working on fixing it.

Meanwhile, his comment about woke-washing came in an environment in which it’s rare for modern brands in both the fashion and beauty sectors not to embrace some element of the ethical and sustainable issues that consumers, especially Gen Z and Millennials, rate so highly. These include size, race and gender inclusivity, a focus on recycling and organic materials and support of good causes.


Dove has embraced purposeful marketing


But he feels that half-hearted commitment that’s more about money-making and trying to look good than true belief in the causes won’t be tolerated by consumers.

Jope said “woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues.” He said that trust in advertising is “in short supply” and that if brands don’t “walk the talk” that trust could be eroded further. “Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world,” Jope said.

Only this month Unilever, announced that Dove has partnered with UNICEF “to bring self-esteem education to millions” of young people.

His comments come as brands are increasingly being treated with scepticism over their ‘ethical’ actions with criticism recently of Boohoo’s line using recycled materials (it includes some fibres that make it hard for the items to be recycled again), and other brands being accused of jumping on the Pride bandwagon.

Other issues have arisen when companies have produced good causes T-shirts but exposés have shown the items being made in factories that exploit workers.

Two years ago, Unilever itself was accused of insensitivity over a Dove ad that showed a black woman apparently morphing to white after using its body lotion, and its ownership of the Fair & Lovely skin-whitening brand has also put it in the firing line.

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