Where are our British retail heroes?

Fortune favours the brave

Thanks to social media, we live in a society of outrage. The phrase ‘I’m entitled to my opinion’ is bandied about prolifically, and even seemingly innocuous threads and discussions soon descend into jeering and name-calling. Having a strong opinion can make you a hero or a villain… or both, depending on who’s reading.

So it’s no surprise really that many brands are taking a vanilla, people-pleasing approach, sitting on the proverbial fence, paralysed with fear of causing offence. The result? Brand inertia. Boring, middle-of-the-road nothingness.

There are exceptions. Marmite has challenged us to ‘love it or hate it’ for years – there’s no room for ‘I don’t know’. And sure, some people hate it. But those that love it, really love it. This is passion and it’s what brands should be inspiring in their customers.

Nike… knew that taking a firm stance would alienate them with a few and endear them to the many.

Across the pond, we’re seeing some encouraging cases of brand activism. Take Nike. Always a bold brand, it has chosen a polarising path with its latest ad campaign. The signing of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been seen by many as a deliberately inflammatory move – Kaepernick was one of the NFL players who refused to stand for the American national anthem, in protest at police brutality and racism. He features in the latest ads commemorating the 30th anniversary of the brand’s famous slogan Just Do It. And Nike has been typically uncompromising in its accompanying message: ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’.

The result? Some Americans have been burning their Nike products (and posting pictures on social media, of course). And, naturally, Donald Trump has got in on the Tweeting act, asking ‘What were Nike thinking?’ Well, Nike were probably thinking it was a pretty good calculated risk. Sales soared 31 per cent. With the majority of its customer base aged under 35, they knew that taking a firm stance would alienate them with a few and endear them to the many.


Levi’s is another all-American brand taking on a big issue. It has officially announced its stance on reducing gun violence, affiliating with gun control organisations and setting up a fund to support safety initiatives. Clearly a move that will rattle the strident NRA members, who have also taken to social media to declare their boycotting of the brand. But, as CEO Chip Bergh so eloquently says: ‘While taking a stand may be unpopular with some, doing nothing is no longer an option’.

Although, a word of caution. Taking a stand is admirable. But look at the example of Serena Williams. No matter how famous a person is (or thinks they are), a one-person crusade will fail without wider support. This is why the #MeToo movement has succeeded… many voices coming together to inspire change.

Of course, brand activism is nothing new. It may have lost its way a bit in more recent years, but thankfully the Body Shop is getting back to its old activist roots. And Dutch-owned fashion brand G-Star RAW has been vocal in its support of ocean plastic clean-ups. When I was in San Francisco recently, a massive boom was launched to clean up waste in the ocean on the West Coast of the US. Any coincidence that this technology has been supported by substantial investment from the Dutch government?

Right now I am holding out for a brand hero, to look to as a beacon of ‘something’.

But, where are the British brands in all this? Hiding behind tentative, inoffensive and decidedly tepid ideals. I’d like to know when the phrase ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time’ stopped being relevant. Why are brands trying so hard to be liked that they can never really be loved?

Perhaps it’s our natural inherent trait. After all, the biggest demonstration of activism we could muster when Donald Trump visited was a giant balloon. And even that was seen as controversial by some.


In fact, the only sign of a British brand taking a bold step recently misfired, spectacularly. Lush’s campaign calling out undercover police for their ‘misconduct’ was nothing short of a disaster. The company beat a hasty, equally ham-fisted retreat. The frothy, sparkly bathbomb and soapy thing went all socially serious, as though it was OD’ing on its own heady parfum. Lesson learnt? Activism can’t simply be switched on and off. It must be part of a brand’s inherent personality. Levi’s was founded in the rebellious 1960s. Nike has always promoted and stood up for the little guy. Anita Roddick had a personal battle with the corporate beauty brands who tried to shut her down and shut her up. But Lush? This was out of character and schizophrenic. Activism must be authentic, otherwise it becomes nothing short of #FAKENEWS.

Time for British brands to nail their flags to the mast on things that matter most to consumers. And to do it from the inside out, not a paper exercise or PR stunt. They must live and die by their brand values, making them integral to their DNA and bringing them to the fore in everything, be it social media, advertising or the retail environment. Aside from a couple of leaders at the time of the Brexit referendum – notably Wetherspoons and Dyson – remarkably few have shared their views. Why not? The referendum didn’t give a box for ‘I don’t know’, and brands shouldn’t give themselves this cop-out option either.

Right now I am holding out for a brand hero, to look to as a beacon of ‘something’. A trusted and true stance, with values we can identify with and believe in. Forget fake news and brand inertia. We need truth and bravery.

Retailers are playing it safe through fear of losing customers. But as Nike has shown, that doesn’t have to be the case. Appealing to the masses means you connect with nobody. Taking a stance and sticking with it earns you respect. And with respect come rewards.

By Karl McKeever

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