Bushfire relief: Act of charity or marketing ploy?

Over the last seven months, 10 million hectares of Australian soil has been burned, and half a million animals and 27 people have died. The sheer scale of the catastrophic bushfires raging across Australia is something the country hasn’t faced before, and neither is the response.

Businesses, domestic and international, have pledged support to the charities giving aid on the ground, as well as the firefighters risking their lives each day to save homes and keep the flames at bay.

Retailers from across the industry have leveraged donations, profit, food, clothes, as well as other goods and services they can offer to help emergency services, non-profit organisations and people who have lost loved ones or homes.

Some retailers, such as those that took part in the ‘All In’ campaign last week, donated all profits from purchases made over a certain period of time to selected charities. Spearheaded by General Pants’ chief executive Sacha Laing, the campaign brought together more than 30 retailers to raise money for affected Australians. Those businesses included The Iconic, Cue, Hush Puppies, Levi’s, MJ Bale, Nudie Jeans, Rodd and Gunn, Veronika Maine and more.

“A lot of these communities have been affected and it’s not going to be something that will take a couple of months to repair. It will be a long, ongoing process of remediation, and we’re in it for the long haul,” Berchtold said.

The Iconic chief executive Erica Berchtold told Inside Retail Weekly the online marketplace was taking both a short and long-term focused approach to its support. For example, offering storage to the Red Cross at its fulfilment centre in western Sydney and continuing to encourage staff to volunteer with Thread Together to clothe those in need, such as bushfire victims.

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“Our customers are looking to businesses to take a stand on things and to drive messages. I don’t think you can just look at yourself as a business anymore or as just a profit and loss statement.”

Not all retailers took the same route, however. Online retailer Flora & Fauna deciding against promising a portion of its profits, and instead simply donated a fixed sum themselves – keeping its business and support separate.

“We decided having a sale wasn’t right for us, so we simply donated instead,” the business said.

“We also cancelled all new promotions encouraging our customers to use their money to donate instead of spending it with us, and have given our community details of how to donate to official charities.”

Cynicism driven by jumping on the bandwagon

However, even acts of charity such as these are publicly scrutinised, with some viewing the claims of generosity under the guise of a more consumerist, profit-first expectation of business.

This is, in part, due to many brands’ lack of history supporting social causes, or a lack of transparency when doing so, according to Dora Nikols, director of Social Mission.

“I think when it’s a natural disaster, companies genuinely care, but sometimes brands get on the bandwagon of political issues they have no right to weigh in on, or it’s something they haven’t been involved in in the past,” Nikols told IRW.

“There is consumer cynicism when brands don’t do it right, if it doesn’t make sense. If they want to avoid cynicism next time, it might be better to just give a donation.”

According to Nikols, if businesses want goodwill in the public community, they need to find a cause that lines up with their business and support it in an authentic way.

“The companies that aren’t seen as doing this for a PR exercise are the ones that consistently give. Good examples are Kathmandu, Witchery and Sportsgirl. If a brand like that gives to the bushfire appeal, it appears more genuine because it’s in their D.N.A,” Nikols said.

In fact, the latest research from YouGov found that 67 per cent of consumers will have a more positive impression of a business that gives even a small amount to charity, while the Edelman Trust Barometer found that 64 per cent of consumers will avoid a brand based on its social stance.

And, increasingly, saying nothing can be considered a social statement.

“Moving forward, I would encourage businesses that want to create goodwill in the community to find a cause that they really care about,” Nikols said. “[Because] the ones that don’t are the ones that will be criticised.”

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