Brands and the Illusion of Inclusivity

Last month H&M released the new advert for its autumn 2016 campaign featuring 72 year old actress Lauren Hutton, British model Adwoa Aboah, trans actress Hari Nef, one half of Lion Babe Jillian Hervey and designer Pum Lefebure. It also included Muslim model Mariah Idrissi wearing a hijab, a woman with hairy armpits, a muscular woman, lesbians and a woman with a shaven head.

It was also revealed last month that H&M’s pre-tax profit for the third quarter fell 9.2% due to the late summer heatwave which put buyers off their autumn range. The high street retailer hopes the message of inclusivity in its new advert will result in increased sales.

There’s no doubt that it’s refreshing to see a broader representation of women in an international campaign – women that we identify with ourselves, or recognise as our friends and colleagues. It’s a welcome change from the leggy, hairless, impossibly perfect models that we’re used to seeing and the media agrees. The Fader praised H&M for “challeng[ing] mainstream stereotypes of “ladylike” beauty and behaviour”, Cosmopolitan UK said it is “the feminist advert we all need in our lives” and The Guardian praised the brand for mirroring “the real world” when the ad industry does quite the opposite.

But while H&M says the new campaign is designed to encourage “women around the world to embrace their personal style and take pride in who they truly are” this contradicts their activity in-store. Plus-size models may feature in the autumn campaign but most stores don’t stock a plus-size range. Every New York store recently pulled plus-sized garments from its floors to make way for the expanding range of sportswear, beauty and home goods.

In addition, the Swedish manufacturer came under scrutiny earlier this year for their production processes, including the employment of Syrian refugee children in their factories in Turkey. Sadly, this isn’t an issue exclusive to H&M. But it’s the contraction of their new advert brazenly proclaiming to empower females with their immoral working conditions that calls into question whether brands can sincerely join conversations about social issues without looking exploitative – as if they’re merely capitalising on the latest ‘trend’. For an example of this, just look at the backlash to Starbucks’ opportunistic #RaceTogether campaign.

That’s not to say brands shouldn’t incorporate social causes as an integral part of their campaign. It differentiates you from the competition and is good for business: 55% of respondents in a 2015 Nielsen survey said they would pay extra for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact. There is a benefit in businesses actually practising what they preach.

Whole Foods lives up to its brand message by providing millions in low-interest loans to small local producers across the US and their Whole Planet Foundation tackles poverty through micro-lending in rural communities round the world. The Body Shop is regarded as a pioneer of modern corporate social responsibility (CSR) and regularly publishes reports on its efforts and initiatives. This year it pledged that any natural ingredients used in its products would be 100% traceable by 2020.

Last Christmas, John Lewis partnered with Age UK for their annual festive advert. Not only did the message of the ad shed light on a serious issue – loneliness among the elderly – but John Lewis didn’t stop there. They put on events and workshops as well as donating the proceeds on sales of certain products to the charity. It was a partnership – not just a way for John Lewis to tug on the heartstrings (and purses) of the British public.

There are plenty of examples of brands that take corporate social responsibility seriously. Today, companies will not get away with false sincerity and if they want to remain in the good graces of the public eye and foster their brand ambassadors, they need to align CSR into their long-term strategy. Not use it as a temporary bandwagon to jump aboard.

By Bella Foxwell


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