Jane Walker: You’ve Come a Long Way Baby!
Corporate consciousness is in the news, with Delta Airlines, Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Hertz and Avis among companies severing ties with the National Rifle Association after the horrific Parkland shooting.
As is always the case when corporations take stands on social issues or engage in some kind of altruism, the more cynical among us question their motivations. Are they true believers in social justice or simply investing marketing dollars to sell products or influence key decision makers? Ross Douthat’s latest column, The Rise of Woke Capitalism, skewers companies for having it both ways.
While half-heartedly admitting that many companies are “sincerely motivated,” to take a stand, he writes that:
“…activism increasingly exists to protect the self-interest and the stinginess — to justify the ways of C.E.O.s to cultural power brokers, so that those same power brokers will leave them alone (and forgive their support for Trump’s economic agenda) in realms that matter more to the corporate bottom line.”
Beloved brands like Apple pushed for LGBT rights while ignoring human rights abuses directly related to the manufacturing of its products. Not to mention the $38 billion or so tax break they’ll enjoy as the result of tax reform.
And as “courageous” it might seem to take on the mighty NRA, the bottom line at Dick’s Sporting Goods shouldn’t be affected all that much, one way or the other as a result of taking AR-15’s off the shelf and raising the buying age for guns to 21 from 18.
I’m not nearly as cynical as Douthat. Most businesses now understand that people, especially Generations Y & Z, make brand choices rooted in alignment on corporate social agendas as much as product features and benefits. Still, I find that many brands are entirely sincere in their efforts. Starbucks is a company that clearly supports its workers, as demonstrated through health benefits and tuition assistance. While widely ridiculed, their “Race Together” initiative was a genuine effort to raise awareness and understanding of racial issues.
It’s great when companies act with compassion to make the world a better place. Of course, not everyone will agree on what “better” looks like or how to get there. You’ll never please everyone, but on balance, it’s a good practice to take a stand that helps it ladder up and transcend functionality.
Trying to read minds and question the sincerity of any company trying to do good in the world is a fool’s errand. However, we can parse how these initiatives are executed. Are they in character with the brand? Are they rooted in the real concerns of its customers? Whether or not the efforts are sincerely rooted in authentic concern, are they perceived that way?
One of the first brands to take up the cause of feminism was Virginia Slims. This cigarette came from Phillip Morris, the same wonderful folks who brought us Marlboro. Virginia Slims introduced a catchy jingle to celebrate women in the early days of the feminist movement, or “Women’s Lib” as it was known at the time: “You’ve got your own cigarette now baby! You’ve come a long, long way.”
This 1968 TV ad, to put it kindly, doesn’t hold up well in any sense. Liberating women to destroy their health isn’t a good premise to start with. And the lingering long-shot of a beautiful, glamorous, all done up size-two woman walking her supermodel strut from a distance into close-up range doesn’t seem to be an invitation to the C-Level suite. Nor does it provide encouragement to apply to the Ivy League colleges, which were just getting around to opening their doors to women after 200 years at the time.
Phillip Morris did create the Virginia Slims Tour, featured in the recent film “Battle of the Sexes” about the epic match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which was at least a start on the road to pay parity between the genders in professional tennis.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the good people of Phillip Morris believed in feminism as sincerely as Donald Trump believes in marital fidelity.
Is Diageo’s new Jane Walker Edition any better?
The limited-edition product – the company says they are making some 250,000 bottles – contains the very same scotch whisky in Johnnie Walker Black bottles. Only the name and packaging graphics are different, with Jane rather than Johnnie on the label to celebrate Women’s History Month.
Again, while I can’t read their minds, I will venture to say that the people at Diageo acted with sincerity in their effort to honor women. There is little doubt in my mind that they saw a “win-win” opportunity to create goodwill for an important brand in their portfolio while recognizing social progress for women.
Unfortunately, something went very wrong on the journey from concept, i.e., let’s celebrate women, to its execution. This is one that falls into the “What were they thinking?” category.
First, one has to wonder why they would choose a category and brand strongly dominated by male users to pay homage to women in the first place. Was it the ease of changing Johnnie into Jane? It’s just too facile, too contrived.
I’ve read a few pundits praising the initiative, but I scrolled a long way down the #janewalker Twitter feed looking for a positive comment before giving up. Here are some typical tweets:
At last! A whisky just for me. Be still, my lady heart. My poor enfeebled life, as a woman unable to cope with manly whisky, is now made bearable thanks to ‘Jane Walker’ whisky for ladies. I shall of course be writing a letter of gratitude with my Bic pen for Her #missingthepoint @Nik_M_Macdonald
Can’t wait to finally be allowed to try scotch for the first time. @Oppenfailer
More sickening corporate virtue-signaling and obliteration of harmless tradition…as if Johnnie Walker’s drinkers are anything more than 3% women. @QuintusCurtius
The promotion will be quickly forgotten and won’t make a bit of difference in the long run. Still, there’s lost time, money (the cost of developing the idea, production costs, advertising and promotion, etc.) and the loss of potential goodwill.
Diageo has to be credited with donating $1 per bottle, or a total of $250,000, to Monumental Women, a non-profit dedicated to erecting statues of women (there are none at present) in New York’s Central Park, and to She Should Run, an organization that helps women seeking election to public office.
All of that would have been a great start for a promotion that might have featured groundbreaking women, contemporary and historical, in Johnnie Walker “Keep Walking Ads,” organizing “Keep Walking” Walks for selected women’s causes or any other number of more authentic (or at least perceived that way) initiatives.
This is best summed up by a tweet from @rekha_s_nair:
A few pretty bottles of #whiskey for the #women?! Brand fail #Diageo! Think how much more powerful it would have been if it was Johnnie, not Jane, donating to women’s causes.