Dole—too little, too late?

This morning, on TV1s Breakfast, I was asked what advice I’d give Dole if they called GoodSense for marketing help. I thought the answer demanded a little more space than live television permits so I will attempt to do more justice to it here.

First, I would tell Dole that I believe its ‘Ethical Choice’ greenwash has damaged not only its banana brand in New Zealand but also the wider Dole reputation. Since Dole announced it were ditching ‘Ethical Choice’ yesterday, friends, with neither marketing nor employment rights backgrounds, have been joining the dots between Dole bananas, Dole pineapples and other Dole products and between treatment of Dole growers and the employment conditions of Bangladeshi garment factory workers. This places Dole at the heart of a story of increasing concern to New Zealanders: what practices their consumer expenditure is supporting. And this is a story turbo-charged by consumers’ unprecedented power to publish their hopes and concerns to thousands, in seconds and for free, online.

Given a lack of evidence, and a paucity of time, most consumers will give major brands the benefit of the doubt. But they aren’t stupid. And they aren’t particularly forgiving. Colmar Brunton’s ‘Better Business Better World’ research in 2012 showed 94 percent of New Zealanders ‘get annoyed when products pass themselves off as greener than they are’. So I would advise Dole that, like Cadbury following the palm oil fiasco, it can expect a long term decline in brand trust and consumer support as a result.  Ditching ‘Ethical Choice’ at this point, following the Oxfam research, is too little, too late.

  • Check out the report and Dole's response to it here

Secondly, I’d advise it that the trend away from public acceptance of corporate profit based on harmful exploitation, be it of people or the environment, is bigger than it can buck, even given its status as one of the largest food companies in the world. In fact, as a major household brand, and one with a now grubby reputation, it is likely to find itself an easy target for consumers choosing to vote for ethics and environmental responsibility with their wallets.

Thirdly, I would recommend that it seize the opportunity this trend presents to reinvent the business and prepare to thrive in the 21st century. This would rely on an end-to-end overhaul of its entire product supply and distribution chain. The goal would be to create a step-change improvement in human and environmental wellbeing. This does not mean tokenist provision of selected ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ lines. Success would require a wholesale commitment to supporting and stimulating independently certified grower co-operatives using organic production techniques across their entire product range, with transparently promoted deadlines for achievement. Inside five to ten years Dole could single-handedly improve the wellbeing of thousands of people and millions of hectares of land. Now that would make them an ‘Ethical Choice’, worldwide.

Global brands like Puma and Unilever are already on comparable trajectories to future-proof their businesses. They are finding the programmes are stimulating innovation and efficiency, building towards profit from savings and improved brand perception, rather than heedless exploitation. And they are committed to credible marketing communications about their progress on that journey. 

I’m not expecting Dole to call, but the GoodSense advice if they did would be the same as we give New Zealand brands about their marketing every week: be authentic, be transparent and respect your customers.

  • Kath Dewar is managing director of marketing business GoodSense, which delivers green marketing solutions for progressive organisations. She is a speaker and media commentator on green marketing and greenwash. @GoodSenseMktg

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