What brands can learn from the Woolworths Australia Day debacle

Peter Dutton’s proposed Woolworths boycott is a timely reminder that Australian brands and communities continue to struggle to navigate what has become a divisive national holiday. Karen Dunnicliff, communications director at Salterbaxter Australia, explains more.

Peter Dutton’s proposed Woolworths boycott is a timely reminder that Australian brands and communities continue to struggle to navigate what has become a divisive national holiday.

How often do we see high-ranking politicians calling for a boycott of retail businesses which choose not to stock products that have declining sales?

Especially when these products are in no way critical to the health, or quality of life of citizens?

I can’t think of a single example.

But brands can learn a lot from Woolworths’ decision to remove Australia Day merch from shelves, and Peter Dutton’s response.

Should corporates engage on social issues when there’s no way to avoid criticism?

After the Voice referendum was unsuccessful, commentators questioned whether businesses should be engaging on social issues of this nature at all.

Being a socially-conscious business makes sense – at least in the numbers. Data suggests Australian consumers are becoming more values-driven and prefer brands that reflect the social issues important to them.

Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly polarised society. There is no position, opinion or action that is universally approved in this world. And people will take advantage of that.

If brands have clearly articulated values, that are informed by stakeholder views, including their customers’ values, they might not be universally popular, but they will demonstrate integrity and transparency. Of course, in a divisive world, they may still need to prepare for the inevitable backlash and have strategies in place to manage it.

Can you make a smart business move while doing good?

A smart business strategy and a responsible business strategy are not mutually exclusive, they should be one and the same. Being clear on your purpose, why you exist, and the value that you deliver will help you make smart, responsible business decisions.

We are seeing businesses around the world attempting to do it by rethinking and innovating their whole business models to become more sustainable.

And like Peter Dutton says, “it’s up to the customers whether they want to buy the product or not.” In this scenario, Woolworths is just responding to what many Australians have already decided, for a range of reasons.

In years to come the question of whether products are good for our communities (from a social or environmental perspective) will hold even greater weight in business decision making.

How do brands and businesses navigate the complexity?

This particular debate continues to be complex, nuanced and highly charged.

Navigating it is not easy. Brands need to do the work, be authentic and be consistent with their actions and words.

Woolworths appears to have been consistent on Indigenous affairs. One of five guiding principles in the organisation’s sustainability strategy is to “act like a leader and speak up on issues that matter”. The business has remained committed to reconciliation through public support of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

In the context of the divisive and often hurtful nature of debate around Australia Day, it’s no surprise Woolworths tried to quietly remove merchandise from shelves. Their messaging leads with the business rationale but unsurprisingly that’s not what dominates the news articles and social media feeds of Australians today.

But in amongst all the noise, I’d wager the business will gain more than they’ve lost, because they’re making informed business decisions aligned to their values and actions.


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