Woolworths needs to nurture its reputation

Woolworths. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)
Woolworths. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

“I WISH Woolworths could be found guilty of something; anything!”

This comment was posted in 2013 on Woolworths’ Twitter/Facebook page amid accusations that the retailer had “stolen” a piece of artwork depicting a hummingbird from a local artist. We now know that the accuser turned out to have been rather careless with the truth, having been proven not to be the rightful owner of the design she had claimed as hers.

In fact, upon closer scrutiny and broader discussion, many observers even realised that many drawings of the hummingbird tend to capture it in flight, its wings spread out in almost the same repeated pose.

In the above case, Woolworths was saved by the unexpected appearance of someone said to be the son of the real owner of the drawing in dispute, the owner having died a few months earlier. Nevertheless, the accusation is indicative of an antagonistic sentiment against Woolworths in some quarters, justified or not.

There seem to be a sizeable number of people out there who want to dislike Woolworths for, ostensibly, so-called sins it committed in the past; sins it is rumoured to have committed; or sins it is imagined to have committed – proven or not. Some observers attribute such apparent antagonism to the retailer’s oft-repeated claim to being driven by good values and ethical considerations while seemingly not always living up to them, as well as the jealousy this might engender in some people.

Let’s be clear, Woolworths is not an angel. It has made mistakes in the past or, rather, mistakes have been made in its name by employees and others associated with it through its vast supply chain. Some people might have inadvertently taken short cuts, while others did so deliberately, not expecting to be caught.

Woolies 'must be taught a lesson'

I’ve heard some of those currently gunning for it, because of its alleged dealings with Israel, claiming that they do so precisely because they want the retailer to live up to its claimed ethics. An industry professional even lamented what she described as ‘Woolworths’ exceptionalism’. To her and to others, Woolworths is like the child who believes that, in the eyes of its parents, it can do no wrong. So they have to teach it a lesson.

Attacking the retailer on the seeming relaxation of its ethical stance when it concerns Palestinian human rights seems to be a potent weapon for obtaining widespread media coverage for the anti-Israeli cause. Woolworths’ position that it purchases products from different parts of the world, and only a few from Israel in its quest to offer a wider range for its customers to choose from, does not seem to be winning it any favours.  

“It’s like a someone during apartheid claiming that people should have the right to choose whether or not they will have business dealings with the apartheid regime,” one activist told me.  

Assuming that the BDS campaign only uses Woolworths to attract media interest and gain traction in the public eye, it is safe to argue that it has thus far been a massive success. If, on the other hand, its organisers hope that Benjamin Netanyahu will notice their actions and change his government’s policies and conduct vis-à-vis the people of Palestine, then they are wrong. As Americans would say, “that ain’t gonna happen”.

The truth is that the bulk of Woolworths’ customers do not give a toss about the plight of Palestinians. To many of them, the further away Palestine is from their consciousness – mental or otherwise - the better. Palestinians might even be affiliated to ISIS for all they care. So, apart from making too much noise and disturbing the larney peace of Woolworths customers, the BDS campaigners are not important enough to hit Woolworths where it would hurt most.

Woolworths' choices

So, what choice is Woolworths left with?

At this stage very little. The easy way out of this noisy room – apart from resorting to the courts for protection - would be to stop importing the few products that it buys from Israel, even if they do not come from disputed territories. But that seems unlikely.

The other option is to continue brandishing its middle finger to the BDS campaigners, hoping that they soon get tired and move on to play elsewhere.  

Whatever Woolworths decides, it needs to continue being protective of the otherwise good reputation that it has carefully built over the years. But it also has to determine a future value for its evolving customer base, here in South Africa.  

* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley. Views expressed are his own.

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