Patagonia and KFC: Good and Bad Brand Activism

Patagonia and KFC: Good and Bad Brand Activism
#Marketing #Ideas

We have been able to read numerous articles on Patagonia, its founder, and the transfer of almost all of its shares to a non-profit entity to combat climate change. For this reason, I wanted to extend the reflection, comparing two realities by looking at how they manage (or try to manage) brand activism strategies. Because while anyone can support a cause, few know how to do it well.

The founder of Patagonia transferred 98% of his shares to a Fund and an Entity to fight climate change. The news was treated as a revolutionary decision, something that paves the way for a new way of thinking about doing business. However, this is only the latest step for a company that has always stood out in the fashion world, not limiting itself to sporadic actions but making brand activism one of its strengths.

I often talk about this in my courses. Patagonia is no stranger to environmental awareness campaigns. Some of you may remember the “Don’t buy this Jacket” campaign or the pages on the website during the US elections listing, regardless of political color, the names of candidates committed against global warming.

At this point in the story, however, something happens that further changes the game rules. Yvon Chouinard will no longer be the owner of the company but will oversee the new Fund created ad hoc, the Patagonia Purpose Trust, to ensure that proceeds are devoted to the cause he has followed for decades. It’s not the first time that an entrepreneur has given everything to a Foundation, often just for tax advantages, and dedicated themselves to philanthropic activities. But this time there’s something more and different.

Let’s take a step back to know the life of the brand’s founder even before the birth of Patagonia itself. This is how we find the correct key to understand his latest decision.

Activism before the Brand

In 1947, Yvon began climbing, and this sport brought him into close contact with the natural environment, which he learned to love and respect. Over time, he began to study and produce climbing equipment, founding a commercial activity in 1957. Over the years, he noticed that the spikes used for climbing were damaging that same environment that gave him great emotions. For this reason, in the early 70s, he introduced new, less harmful models, developing the concept of “clean climbing.”

This is the first signal that allows us to better understand his subsequent actions.

Why go towards Brand Activism

A disinterested love for the environment, present even before the brand itself: this defines the power of Patagonia, making it universally recognized as one of the first “activist activities.” Indeed, the attention Yvon placed in producing equipment that did not impact the rock transferred to the guidelines that moved the clothing company since its birth.

Patagonia is not just a brand conscious of its impact on the environment; it actively seeks solutions to produce a meaningful change. This discourse fully fits into a transition phase that the world of entrepreneurship and marketing, the good kind, cannot ignore. Building a brand identity solely through its products or services is becoming increasingly insufficient.

Consumers increasingly expect brand participation in social issues. Brands are no longer considered entities detached from the world; they are fully immersed in contemporaneity and have more possibilities to introduce change, often more than politics, which proves cumbersome, slow, and often insensitive to the issues that civil society feels on its skin. For a brand today, it is necessary to take clear positions and carry them forward with consistency: not acting is worse than playing for the opposing team.

Not all activities can become the new Patagonia, certainly not overnight. However, what is within everyone’s reach is to start moving concretely, following a cause and activating to take part in marking the path to follow.

But how to do it?

Avoid “cause”-washing

Numerous activities have approached this strategy becoming just another marketing opportunity, even leading to the creation of a term to indicate this exact behavior: cause-washing. Too often, we face actions that are merely superficial, sometimes ridiculous, other times capable of compromising trust in the brand.

My first piece of advice is not to approach without first developing a deep awareness of what it means to “actively support.” In short, do not make anything up, do not ride emotional waves, and do not lie about yourself and your audience. True, the average consumer can be distracted or uncritical, but sooner or later, the knots come to a head.

This also leads to a second point: do not be in a hurry. First, because understanding which causes to support is an internal journey, a sincere look inside before spreading the message outside, finding the right words, taking care of every aspect. Trying to speed up the process only makes it evident that the ultimate goal is not to provide support but to try to stand out.

Once the decision to embark on a path in a certain direction is made, it is necessary to consistently provide evidence that it is possible to go beyond mere words. We can start from internal reorganization, or from good office practices, or still from the implementation of more eco-sustainable, inclusive, and respectful rules. Starting with small gestures and consolidating them over time is already a positive signal.

Finally, it takes courage to admit one’s mistakes: attempting to hide them would be worse. This is because highlighting where one is wrong is also a sign of self-observation, implying particular attention to one’s path.

An exemplary case (of pink-washing): KFC against breast cancer

In 2010, KFC announced that for every bucket of fried chicken purchased, it would donate 50 cents to a volunteer organization fighting breast cancer. For the occasion, they also produced pink buckets (what other color?) to promote the campaign, and the result was a total donation of 4 million dollars. All fantastic, right? Yes, if not for two major problems that surfaced later.

First, the Washington Post highlighted how the total donation was made before the actual end of the campaign. This means that the number of buckets purchased would not have influenced the total sum, but only KFC’s profits. If this point was more of a hidden move, borderline forgivable in view of the action’s overall goodness, the second problem was instead in plain sight. Many criticized the operation (indeed, it doesn’t take a nutritionist to understand that fried chicken and the prevention of serious diseases don’t exactly go hand in hand). We all know that fried food is certainly not a good basis for one’s diet and should be limited. Furthermore, some studies have also linked it to indirect causes of cancer.

The donation, while undeniably generous, took a back seat to the campaign’s lack of goodness, becoming one of the most famous cases of pinkwashing.

It would have been different if KFC had chosen to change ingredients or offer healthier alternatives to encourage correct eating habits, prevention, and support better lifestyles. They could have also chosen an alternative path, making amends and declaring that, although offering a menu not characterized by being health-conscious, this time eating fried chicken would also do good.

The power of actions

This is just a very weak example of brand activism that allows us to understand how, without real reflection upstream, operations of this kind can lead to not only disappointing but counterproductive results.

As a marketing consultant, I deeply believe in an approach oriented towards creating added value through real actions that can leave a positive mark on society, the environment, non-human animals, rights, but I have also desisted from doing so with brands that were not ready. It requires maturity, commitment, seriousness, constancy.

The more we want to commit, the more we must first grow as organizations and as people.

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