Beware of ‘woke washing’: Ethical branding must reflect an ethical business

31 Aug 2020

Spanish chocolate manufacturer Lacasa is under pressure to change the name and logo of its Conguitos brand with a consumer-led petition - but experts warn against empty ‘cause marketing’.

The spotlight is shining on discriminatory or inappropriate brand names and logos. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests across the US and around the world, some companies have reacted quickly, pledging to change racially insensitive brands in their portfolios. PepsiCo’s Aunt Jemima, Mars-owned Uncle Ben’s, and Dreyer’s Eskimo Pie, for instance, will all undergo a rebranding.

Beware of ‘woke washing’: Ethical branding must reflect an ethical business

In Europe, Spanish confectionery manufacturer Chocolates Lacasa is accused of promoting discriminatory stereotypes with its Conguitos range of chocolate-covered peanuts and, for the second time, is the subject of a consumer petition calling for an overhaul of the product’s marketing.

“The name Conguitos itself, derived from a diminutive of the Spanish word for ‘Congolese’, and the caricatural illustration of a small black character with large red lips on a chocolate product makes this a racist product that stigmatizes the black population,” reads the online petition on Change.org.

The current petition was created by Myriam Benlarech, a French finance director living in Barcelona, who was shocked by the product when she first moved to Spain.

The petition, which has attracted over 6,000 signatures so far, demands that Chocolates Lacasa remove all products marketed under the Conguitos brand name that feature the brand’s caricatural representation. It also wants Lacasa, which acquired the Conguitos in 1987, to publicly apologise for using stigmatizing and racist marketing materials, and to commit to exploring ways it can compensate for the harm caused by the brand.

PepsiCo recently pledged to invest over $400 million over five years to lift up black communities and increase black representation at PepsiCo

Brand loyalty backlash

Despite the support of thousands of internet users, Benlarech said she has experienced a backlash from those who do not see the product as racist or who feel loyal to the brand.

“There is a lot of opposition from people who are sentimentally attached to the brand because they grew up with it […]. There is a nostalgia for the brand and they see this petition as an attack on their childhood or an accusation that, because they buy Conguitos and like Conguitos, they are racist.”

Benlarech said the online petition also had an educational role in helping these consumers understand the racist nature of the mascot and name.

The importance ethical business

Lacasa did not respond to requests for comment by this publication. However, it recently took to Twitter in response to the petition by creating the hashtag #ConguitosEsDeTodos (Conguitos is for everyone), suggesting the company, for now, is standing behind the original branding.

According to Joss Ford, founder of Enviral, an ethical marketing agency that works with brands who prioritise people and the planet, this could prove damaging in the long-term.

“Now more than ever, consumers are standing up for their beliefs and calling out brands who continue to push outdated social and environmental practices. Whether this is climate change or racist symbolism, consumers now have the power to bring about serious, positive change,” she said.

“By voting with their purse, [companies] are being led by these consumers who are increasingly demanding better. Those brands who are genuinely choosing to put people and the planet first are coming out on top,” Ford added.

This seems to be backed up by the findings of a 2019 study from NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business. After analysing data for 36 different product categories, made up of over 71,000 stock keeping units (SKUs), the researchers found that the growth of sustainably branded products in the US outpaced conventional products, generating nearly $114 billion in sales in 2018 – a 29% increase on 2013.

Beware of woke washing

However, an ethical branding should reflect a truly ethical business, say experts.

Jessica Lohmann, founder and strategist at Germany-based Ethical Brand Marketing, warned that in some cases, brands could risk being seen as ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ when associating themselves with social or political movements.

“It's currently being done all the time because many brands are profit, not purpose-driven and are only looking to gain more credibility and customers with their social campaigns. Many fail, such as Pepsi and Dove. It's dangerous for any brand to take on a social issue just for the sake of credibility and profits because consumers can easily recognize the manipulation,” she told The Ingredients Network.

“Any kind of ‘woke washing’ or ‘cause marketing’ is risky when the cause is not ingrained in the company's ethos. If a company would like to start becoming active in a particular cause -- for authentic reasons, not profit -- then they should not start with an ad campaign, but a brand-new ethical marketing strategy.”

Ford agreed, saying that consumers have called out many brands for ‘token acts’ they carried out as a marketing tool or way to stay current.

For Benlarech, however, it does not matter if Lacasa initially changes Conguitos’ branding due to a meaningful realisation of its discriminatory nature or because of an empty, ‘woke washing’ gesture.

“This is a product that is marketed towards children and it promotes systemic racism. If Lacasa changes the branding because of ethical washing, that would not remove the beneficial side of the action because the harm being done by this branding would disappear immediately.”

She added: “Change is unavoidable, and [Lacasa] will not be able to continue with this kind of product in the future. We have seen this in other countries with companies changing their products. The most important thing is that this [campaign] continues and succeeds, even if it takes years.”

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