Selling Social Issues

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Selling Social Issues

 

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

Besides being a tasty treat that almost everyone enjoys, ice cream is a ‘celebration food’ served at birthday parties and used to reward kids’ sports team success.  So, why did Walmart’s new frozen dairy flavor created to celebrate Black Americans’ emancipation leave a bad taste in so many people’s mouths?  Moreover, what can the failure teach organizations about commercializing social issues?
 
In its ongoing search for profitable new products, the world’s largest retailer recently cooked up a novel plan—tap into Black Americans’ and others’ celebrations of Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Walmart’s strategy to support the celebration involved a line of party products, including napkins, plates, and drink koozies branded “Juneteenth” using the black, red, and green colors often associated with Black liberation, and carrying the tagline, “It’s the freedom for me.”
 
Walmart also created a special food worthy of the branded partyware–Juneteenth Ice Cream, a frozen concoction resembling swirled red velvet cheesecake. However, it wasn’t long after the company launched its Juneteenth line that social media began to skewer it, as shown in these sample tweets:
 
“Walmart needs to do better. It shows the lack of understanding of the pain and suffering that made Juneteenth come about. It is absolutely insulting to have this special holiday turned into some commercial product.” (@The Next Ceiling)
 
“This isn’t “wokeness”, it’s corporations trying to profit off of minorities by acting like they care about us.” (@DeadpoolLIFE69)
 
“So let me get this straight 🤔, y’all made more money keeping us enslaved after the Emancipation Proclamation, and NOW that it’s a recognized Federal Holiday y’all want to make MORE money off the same culture you enslaved??” (@MoodaSchmooda)
 
“White America: Mmmm…best thing we can do is some Walmart Juneteenth ice cream that we’ll profit off of.” (@RedeemRobinson)
 
In the face of the backlash, Walmart made a quick pivot and pulled its Juneteenth-themed ice cream.  It also apologized:

“We received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize. We are reviewing our assortment and will remove items as appropriate.”
 
Companies are increasingly ‘hitching their wagons’ to social causes’—an alignment that many people prefer including 83% of millennials.  Consequently, the approach often proves profitable.  Furthermore, during recent years filled with race-related violence, many consumers expect companies to show their support for racial justice.
 
So, wasn’t Walmart right to support Black Americans by launching a line of Juneteenth products?
 
Although the Twitter feedback above is enlightening, social media responses often prioritize ‘quick and pithy’ over ‘thoughtful and measured.’  For that reason and to help me better understand how Black Americans might perceive Walmart’s tactics, I reached out to a colleague at my university who’s well-qualified to offer an informed perspective.
 
Dr. Todd Allen is Vice President for Diversity Affairs and Professor of Communication at Messiah University.  He’s also the founder of The Common Ground Project, “a community-based non-profit dedicated to teaching the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.”
 
When I asked Allen about Walmart’s Juneteenth product line, he shared these insights:
 
“I think the timing (a new holiday) and some people still feeling burned by the promises of 2020 (which haven’t necessarily resulted in the hoped-for transformative change) just made this too soon.  The fact that they pulled [the ice cream] so quickly also makes me wonder who was in on the decision making in the first place.  It seems like if the TV show Blackish were still on the air, this would be an episode.”
 
Allen also offered one word that captured much of what he shared, “context.”  For instance, he mentioned that Walmart is not known for being progressive on racial issues.  He also said that the company’s approach “felt just a bit too commercial and too opportunistic.”
 
So, what if the context were different?  For another company with a more positive race-related track record, offering different products with better messaging, public perceptions may have been more positive.
 
Allen’s response and the idea of context got me thinking:  Beyond just Walmart and Juneteenth, are there principles that all organizations should follow when connecting with social causes?  There undoubtedly are many, but here are perhaps three of the most important questions to ask:
 
1. What’s the company’s track record on the issue?  Whether it’s an individual or an organization, we’re more likely to trust the motives of someone who has already demonstrated genuine concern about the social issue at hand.  In the case of Walmart and race, results have been mixed. 
 
On one hand, in June 2020, the company pledged $100 million over five years to address racial disparities in the U.S.  However, in January of 2022 a black correction officer sued Walmart for racial profiling when he was wrongfully accused of shoplifting, then in February, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Walmart because “Walmart violated federal law when it gave a Black female employee an unsanitary lactation space based upon her race.”
 
In contrast, Fundraising for a Cause, the world’s largest manufacturer of awareness products, enjoys strong credibility when it comes to earning income through social causes, partly because it’s owner and CEO, Karen Conroy, founded the company after her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and also because her company passes significant profits onto her customers, e.g., they can buy 50 silicone bracelets for $40, sell them for $5 each, and net $210 for their cause.
 
2.  What’s the nature of the product?  There’s a place and time for most products; the key is to ensure that the product personality aligns with sentiments surrounding the social issue. 
 
Juneteenth is certainly a cause for celebration but that’s because it marks the end to several centuries of enslavement.  As such, the holiday understandably evokes mixed emotions that aren’t necessarily in keeping with an all-out party atmosphere, or at least not one worthy of a namesake flavor of ice cream.  Would it be right to have a dairy treat marking the end of the Holocaust? 
 
For comparison, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a nonprofit organization that works in over 50 countries around the world to provide disaster relief, foster economic development, and promote peace.  Among its biggest fundraisers are quilt auctions, which raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.  Quilts are items of beauty and comfort that complement MCC’s three-fold mission.
 
3.  Is the company adding value?  Whether it’s a single salesperson or an entire organization, the measuring stick for any marketer is the value they add in an exchange.  No company should extract more value than it gives.
 
It’s hard to know how much money Walmart would have made on the Juneteenth ice cream and other products.  Knowing Walmart’s typical pricing approach, the profit margins on the items were likely low; however, selling them across more than 5,300 U.S. retail stores, even modest margins would have added up quickly.
 
Walmart also likely hoped to pocket goodwill from the products; however, the biggest grab by Walmart was its attempt to trademark (TM) Juneteenth, as if it had created the name, so that only it could sell Juneteenth branded products.
 
On a positive side, Walmart consumers could purchase the branded products at reasonable prices.  However, it’s unlikely that Juneteenth-imprinted paper products and ice cream would deepen anyone’s understanding of and appreciation for the momentous historic event.  If anything, Walmart’s products may have trivialized it.
 
Other companies have made money, in some cases very large amounts, from marketing race-related products; however, many times they’ve added extra value through education.
 
A good example of such value-added is the feature film Selma, “a chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.”  An Academy Award nominee for best picture, the movie grossed over $66.7 million worldwide on an estimated budget of $20 million.
 
Selma was very profitable for Harpo Films and the other production companies that made the movie.  However, those who watched the film also ‘profited,’ not just from two hours of entertainment but from a better understanding of a very important historic event.
 
As Allen suggested, context matters.  Like others, he wondered why Walmart didn’t instead promote a Black-owned ice cream brand, Creamalicious, which it was already selling in its stores.  Such an approach would have been a better context in at least two of the three ways described above.
 
Unfortunately, however, Walmart tried a more self-serving strategy that quickly melted.  So instead of celebrating, the company is doing damage-control because of its “Single-Minded Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.