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January, 2024

RMIT marketing experts suggest brands like Woolworths are adopting an ‘activism without activism’ approach to Australia Day

Major brands including Woolworths, K-Mart and Aldi have been increasingly distancing themselves from contentious dates such as Australia Day. According to RMIT marketing experts, such brands are remaining quiet on their social alliances to avoid backlash, balancing the need for shareholder and business concerns with perceptions of taking a stance on culturally sensitive issues.

Marketing experts from RMIT, Dr Daniel Rayne and Dr Amanda Spry, have weighed in on this trend following weeks of debate on retailer decisions to continue selling Australia Day merchandise in-store as well as honour the public holiday. As reported on Mi3, Woolworths CEO, Brad Banducci, has now weighed into the discussion, releasing a letter stating the supermarket’s commitment to helping Australians celebrate Australia Day on 26 January and aligning its decision to not sell branded merchandise to commercial, rather than cultural, reasons.

Dr Rayne, who specialises in digital business and marketing, corporate social responsibility and consumer behaviour, said ‘while brands have been leveraging sociopolitical issues as a marketing tool to stand out, the approaches to this year’s Australia Day suggest an ‘activism without activism’ approach being adopted to avoid market isolation.

“Normally, when brands adopt an activism strategy, they put their social support front and centre, however, perhaps driven by fear of isolating the market, big retailers have adopted a business decision focus first,” he said. “Woolworths has adopted this ‘activism without activism’ approach, which signals how the ways brands engage in activism are constantly expanding and evolving. Putting business interests ahead of a firm social position, makes their activism approach more palatable for shareholders.”

Dr Spry, on the other hand, questioned why Woolworths’ decision not to stock Australia Day merchandise, which has a social component, is secondary. She suggested that as consumers become more familiar with brand initiatives that have a social edge, they can reconcile both profit-making and social motives. Dr Spry’s research focuses on the critical role brands play for consumers, companies, markets, and society.

“By Woolworths publicly stating this, they are perhaps making it easier for consumers to interpret its strategy,” she said. “The timing of such comments by Woolworths is unlikely a coincidence as pressure concerning their price gouging heats up.”

Moving away from stocking Australia Day merchandise, even if temporarily, changes the discourse around the brand, Dr Spry noted.

“The negativity surrounding previous attempts to show brand support to First Nations People have perhaps resulted in Woolworths adopting a new approach to their support,” she said. “Brands will often call on social initiatives as a deflection mechanism for current and future malpractice.”

Dr Spry also notes that the timing of Woolworths’ comments is likely not a coincidence, as pressure concerning their price gouging intensifies. She suggests that this move away from stocking Australia Day merchandise, even if temporary, changes the discourse around the brand and could be a deflection mechanism for current and future malpractice.

Both Dr Rayne and Dr Spry have research backgrounds in marketing, corporate social responsibility, and consumer behaviour.