Keep it real

Keep it real

A Canadian brand recently decided to enter a heated public conversation about the unceremonious firing of its news anchor, Lisa Laflamme. Wendy’s Canada changed its social media avatar (profile image) to show Wendy (the brand’s iconic symbol famous for her freckles and red hair) with grey hair.

First, a bit of background for context, then, our analysis of Wendy’s move to help other brands ensure they’re making authentic statements and not merely virtue signalling.

The story: it’s (not) about the hair

Lisa Laflamme is a highly respected Canadian journalist with a long career including stints as chief anchor and senior editor at CTV News. In August 2022, she was abruptly let go from her job anchoring CTV’s primetime news in a manner that the Canadian public found distasteful. Unlike other (male) senior news anchors who retired on their own terms, with dignity recognition from their employers and the industry, Laflamme was given an unceremonious boot. Ratings were not to blame—she was the top-rated anchor of a top-rated show.

It’s been interesting to observe the narrative around these events. (The outcry from Canadians has been loud enough to rate coverage by the New York times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian.) During the pandemic, Laflamme let her thick, lustrous hair go naturally silver and decided not to go back to dying it brunette. Several organizational issues are coming to light about the circumstances surrounding her firing (including, allegedly, a toxic workplace culture, gender wars, and ageism). In popular conversation, her hair has come to symbolize all of it.

So, while it’s not completely about the hair, symbolically, it is all about the hair.

Enter Wendy’s Canada

Wendy’s Canada is a popular fast-food franchise. The brand’s logo features its eponymous, freckled, red-haired young girl in pigtails: A few days after the Laflamme story blew up in Canadian media and popular discourse, Wendy’s changed its Twitter avatar to depict its iconic logo with grey hair:

Was Wendy’s Canada making a bold brand move or virtue signalling? It certainly gave the food franchise a media bump, but for brands that want to take their stand on moral, ethical, or socio-political issues, it is critical that the approach be authentic and aligned with the brand and its values. It must also be borne out (proven) in real action.

Wendy’s grey hair appeared only on the Wendy’s Canada social media avatar, remaining red on the website logo and signage. As of this writing—about a week after the hair “swap” as it became known, the Wendy’s Canada avatar has returnedto her red hair, too.

How to lend a brand’s equity to a good cause

In my opinion, the Wendy’s move must be counted as virtue signalling because the company did not do it authentically. Increasingly, brands have social missions and/or triple bottom lines and do need to give more consideration to how they tie actions to brand values.

Here’s how Wendy’s Canada could have done that:

Accompany the action by a clear statement about the message the brand intended to send and why. That message should link the brand’s values to the cause. In the case of Wendy’s Canada, its message (shown in the original tweet above) was cryptic: “Because a [star] is a [star] regardless of hair colour.”

pecify the parameters of the action. In the case of Wendy’s grey-hair avatar “swap” that would mean stating what change must occur before it swaps back to red hair.

Act on the change it is signalling a need for. In this example, Wendy’s Canada could review and update its hiring/employment practices or donate to a relevant cause such as research or action on gender inequality, ageism, sexism, or narcissism in the workplace. Those are only a few possibilities – it is up to Wendy’s to decide what’s important to its brand.

Finally, follow through on Steps 1-3. I’d love to see ongoing updates from the brand on its initiatives related to this topic, but other than the activity on Twitter, we haven’t heard more from the company.

Our Essential Story Process triangulates a brand with its leadership’s intentions and its market’s needs and perceptions. The result is a vision, mission, values, and brand story that support organizations to authentically align their words, actions, and identities.