It’s been an interesting few weeks in the world of conscious consumerism.
First, we had William Sitwell, erstwhile editor of the Waitrose in-store magazine, discovering that vegans are no longer fair game for a bit of cheap mockery.
Even if they were, most rational people would agree that suggestions they be “killed one by one” just aren’t funny. As fellow vegan-basher Giles Coren later commented, if you’re going to end your career with a joke, at least make it funny.
“Being banned has probably gained Iceland more coverage than if its ad had made it on air”
Sitwell didn’t just misread the zeitgeist, he tried to entirely exorcise it with an attempt at humour so feeble it was barely distinguishable from a fatwa.
He seemed convinced his role was that of a witty raconteur penning pithy rebuttals to bothersome journalists, rather than a salesman for a retailer that is actually quite keen on selling products to the increasingly expanding vegan demographic.
In contrast, the controversy over the banned-from-TV Iceland Christmas ad showed exactly how to get things right. I know there are numerous holes that can be shot through the campaign – and I’m normally not one to shirk from such nitpicking – but as a Christmas ad, I think it was nicely pitched.
It certainly has more credibility than what seemed like the afterthought of John Lewis’ WWF bolt-on in 2014, or the awkward mawkishness of Sainsbury’s attempt to sequestrate First World War remembrance in the same year.
Being banned has probably gained Iceland more coverage than if it had made it on air. At the time of writing, it has been viewed 4.25 million times on YouTube. All those viewers have made a conscious effort to watch it, rather than having it served up to them in the middle of Coronation Street.
As Frankie Goes To Hollywood discovered in the 1980s, censorship virtually guarantees an audience.
That kind of deliberate engagement with your brand multiplies the bang for your promotional buck. Which is why I tweeted Richard Walker the suggestion that he might like to further buff Iceland’s halo by donating some of those savings to an environmental cause.
So far he hasn’t responded, so perhaps they haven’t quite got the hang of capitalising on a positive story.
Heart on sleeve
There is an important lesson from all this: any business that aspires to an ethical position has to be fully committed to it from end to end. The proposition has to be built into the company ethos, including total engagement from anyone who represents your brand.
The moral high ground is a crowded place, often already occupied by eagle-eyed naysayers ready to point out the chinks in your ethical armour.
That might lead some retailers to conclude that they shouldn’t venture into the geopolitical arena at all. But that argument is already well past its sell-by date. In case no one has noticed, the high street has become a political battleground of late.
“Retailers need to engage on political, moral and ethical matters every bit as keenly as they promote their special offers”
We don’t need to proselytise, but issues such as store closures, business rates and environmentalism have already rammed themselves into consumer consciousness, along with the existential crisis of Brexit. (On that last point, it’s gratifying to finally see several high-profile retail leaders joining people like myself in standing up and publicly highlighting the potential damage that leaving the EU will do to our industry and our country.)
If we are to remain an essential part of the fabric of our community, retailers need to engage in political, moral and ethical matters every bit as keenly as they promote their latest special offers.
As we have witnessed through the polarised experiences of Iceland and Waitrose, we have to be seen to be doing so genuinely and with real purpose.
The days of simply ticking the ethical box are over. We now have to make sure that what’s in the box delivers at every stage on the expectations of an increasingly vocal and ethically savvy shopper.