Can advertising be a force for good? Diageo's Syl Saller certainly thinks so

Elliott Haworth
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Johnnie Walker's Keep Walkin' campaign – "this land is our land" (Source: Diageo)

If the early bird catches the worm, then the attendees of this year’s Advertising Association LEAD summit must have been full by the time it began.

Early starts are anathema to most in the media, myself included, but the full force of AdLand was on parade, bright-eyed – despite the culture secretary’s dry, cliched, keynote address.

Far better received was the closing address from Syl Saller, chief marketing officer at drinks giant Diageo, in which she portrayed brands – and advertising – as having the ability to start conversations, to change people’s minds, and to be a force for good.

Coincidentally, it was the day of Diageo’s fourth quarter results for last year – so successful it propped up the FTSE on the day. Clearly time poor, we caught up in the green room (which was actually green) to discuss her speech, and why she thinks brands have a moral obligation.

Doing good?

“I guess it’s because I believe that talking about business, brand and personal responsibility might, just might, get us all thinking about how brands can make a difference in the world,” said Saller in her speech.

Big brand household names have a voice. We are familiar with them, and when they speak – we listen. But does such sway oblige them to use that voice to enact social change?

Saller says it’s about creating purpose, but that what works for one brand won’t necessarily work for another. “It has to be authentic. So for Smirnoff to comment on equality issues makes a ton of sense. If Pimms was doing that, it wouldn’t make sense. So you have to really think about: ‘what is the brand talking about?’ and does it have a right to comment? Does it have a right to be in that space?”

Right to comment

One example I raise with Saller is the Keep Walkin’ campaign, reinvigorated by Anomaly for Scotch whisky giant Johnnie Walker. Immediately, admittedly, it seemed slightly absurd for a whisky brand to make a series of seemingly unrelated ads – one focuses on refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos, another adapts the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s unofficial US national anthem, This Land is Your Land.

The song is a sombre folk ballad relaying the inclusivity and freedom of the American Dream, at a time when many in the US feel those sentiments are disappearing before their eyes. The versions used in the Johnnie Walker campaign are sung and spoken by Mexicans, who in the division of the Trumpian era, more than anyone, may feel like This Land is not theirs.

“When you look at that piece in isolation, you know, you’d say, ‘why are we doing this? Where’s the scotch?’” says Saller. “[But] Johnnie Walker’s purpose is to inspire personal progress. We communicate this purpose through storytelling which we hope inspires people to progress – and makes the brand both topical and relevant.”

Saller agrees with me that advertising can be a soft power for social influence. A brand need not tell consumers how to think directly, but by reflecting a reality different to their own, such as with the Ode To Lesvos ad, it might just resonate with, or challenge their values.

“We don’t have all the answers,” says Saller. “But if you make people go ‘wait a minute, I thought the refugees were just people taking our jobs and creating problems’, and you see the humanity, you get in touch with ‘what do all those life jackets mean?’”

The reaction isn’t always so favourable, as this year’s Superbowl showed. An ad from Diageo’s competitor Anheuser-Busch, for its Budweiser brand, showed a truncated dramatisation of its founder arriving in America as an immigrant. The ad was heavily lambasted by Trump supporters, many of whom took to social media calling for a boycott. Either way, it certainly started a conversation.

Show me the money

But is a having a conscience commercially viable? Another Diageo campaign, for Guinness, ran during the rugby World Cup, fronted by former Welsh fullback Gareth Thomas – the first openly gay rugby player.

As someone who was meant to live up to the expectations of a heavyset, rugged “man’s man”, the campaign aimed to change perceptions of homosexuality within audiences who might not usually be particularly open.

“For most of the people we [educated, metropolitan Londoners] associate with, sexuality isn’t an issue – gay, straight, whatever, it doesn’t matter. But that’s not true for everybody. So showing the story of a rugby player coming out and telling his story affects the people who would naturally be inclined to think that way,” says Saller.

All very well, but profitable? Saller says yes: “We know it pays. The results of our World Cup programme were beyond our expectations; £8m in incremental sales and we gained share over Heineken, the official sponsor.”

The campaign won Diageo the coveted new Glass Lion – “the lion for change”– at Cannes last year, but Saller says it was just “the icing on the cake. Hearing the difference our work makes to real people is what matters to me.”

Communicating the virtues of a brand to enact social change is a big task, but one Saller thinks will pay dividends. A report from 2015 by Edelman found 92 per cent of people want to do business with companies that share their beliefs. “People are going to watch what they want to watch. And that means there’s more pressure on us to have truly great work that people want to see.”

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

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