How not to connect your brand to a social cause

Efforts by brands to support environmental messages can be a popular success or go horribly awry. Strategy consultant Anthony Caravello outlines a recent misstep by grocery delivery service Honestbee to show how not to connect a brand with a social cause.

elephant illegal
Illegal wildlife hunting is an urgent environmental problem, but one company's efforts to raise awareness about the issue misfired. Image: Shutterstock

A few weeks ago, the grocery delivery service Honestbee tried to connect its brand to a social cause. What may have been a well-intentioned exercise to show support for the fight against the trade in illegal wildlife products, turned into a case study for how to NOT connect your brand to a social cause.

What happened:

A few days before April Fool’s Day (April 1) Honestbee publicly announced that the service will start selling exotic meats from the boutique merchant Explorer Joe Exotic Meats. Their selection of meats included products from endangered species and illegally traded wildlife products: Minke whale meat, penguin’s fin and koala sausage, to name a few. There was immediate backlash from Facebook followers – with many calling the company’s April Fool’s campaign “distasteful.”

A day later Honestbee revealed that its actions were a stunt to raise awareness on wildlife conservation and drive discussion on the topic of the illegal wildlife trade. It intentionally made its actions provocative in order to get people emotionally charged around the topic.

“Did this stunt actually create the conversation you intended or just lost you existing and potential customer.” - Facebook user.

Despite Honestbee’s positive intentions, the campaign backfired. People were upset and felt duped. While they were successful at getting people emotionally charged, it was more the hostility around the company misleading customers that people got worked up about. Many of Honestbee’s Facebook followers rejected its commitment – calling the company’s actions “deceptive” and “marketing buzz.”

What Honestbee should have done to connect its brand to the cause

1. Shown a believable commitment to the cause

While Honestbee said they wanted to raise awareness on wildlife conservation and drive discussion on the illegal wildlife trade, their commitment was not believable for a number of reasons:

  • They appear to have had no animal welfare partners
  • They did not share any meaningful knowledge on the cause with customers
  • They provided no information on how customers can get involved (besides donate)
  • They gave no explanation on how Honestbee would tackle this social issue beyond this one-time engagement

Honestbee did promise to send all proceeds from the sales of its sweets on its Explorer Joe Exotic Treats to wildlife conservation charities. However, this was not enough to satisfy customers of Honestbee’s commitment to the cause.

2. Promoted understanding for the cause, and showed people real ways to get involved.

The problem with Honestbee’s stunt was that it didn’t do anything to promote or drive a better understanding of the issues at play. It didn’t get Singaporeans to rethink their position on wildlife conversation. It didn’t spark any discussion on how the problem could be tackled. It only existed to create publicity. This was the problem, and this is why customers felt duped.

A real opportunity lay in calling attention to Singapore’s geographic role as one of the world’s top wildlife smuggling hubs. For many in Singapore, the opportunity to have an impact on global change within the country seem relatively few. Here was an opportunity for Honestbee to fight against illegal smuggling by helping to rally Singaporeans on an issue that they could affect – by curbing demand for illegal animal products and getting to Singaporeans to better understand what goes on on their shores. The trade in illegal wildlife is as complicated an issue as any other, and it would have been good to see action suggestions based on expert knowledge from a partner NGO that specialises in this issue.

3. Made certain staff were educated on the issue, and let partners handle the tough questions

Honestbee responded to upset Facebook followers with canned responses, completely ignoring their concerns raised in their comments. And even when they were called out for their generic replies, the brand continued responding unsympathetically as a robot.

With a potential partner on board that understands the dire situation that the illegal trade in wildlife products presents, Honestbee could still foster genuine discussion on the issue. The difference with going it alone versus working with partners is that with the right partner, you’ll gain a credible advocate to answer the hard questions.

4. Demonstrated a long-term commitment to the cause

It’s been more than seven days since Honestbee’s announcement to help end illegal wildlife trading, and there hasn’t been a single additional Facebook post about addressing this social issue. There’s been no further dialogue with customers on ending the illegal wildlife trade, no outlining of the company’s long-term commitment to the cause and no formal apology.

This leaves customers and stakeholders alike wondering if this was just a one-time execution. Is there a long term plan in place to address this issue or was it a well-intentioned but misguided venture into corporate philanthropy, that Honestbee now wants to sweep under the rug? Letting people wait in anticipation for an unveil might work for traditional marketing campaigns but for a campaign that addresses a cause, it leaves people confused and angry.

I personally believe the people at Honestbee had positive intentions with this campaign. But in executing it poorly, the company not only risks its reputation but can ultimately do more damage than good. There still remains the chance to turn this around and become a proponent for ending the illegal wildlife trade by building relevance for the brand and working together with the right partners.

Anthony Caravello is lead consultant for strategic solutions at Be An Idea. This post is republished from Be An Idea with permission.

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