Why Coles needs to look at its authenticity to save face


In the past 24 hours there has been strong criticism of Coles, both online and in the media, over its decision to backflip on its stance on providing free plastic bags to shoppers.

The company publicly made its intention, along with Woolworths, to become single-use plastic bag free, more than twelve months ago which should have triggered a series of events behind the scenes. This clearly didn’t happen.

Their about turn on this doesn’t just show a lack of preparation or a lack of communication and education of their shoppers, it also shows a lack of authenticity in implementing the initiative in the first place.

The announcement last year came hot on the heels of the Harris Farm commitment to be single-use plastic bag-free by January. Brands like Harris Farm play an important role in effecting change. They have a voice that’s big enough to have an impact, at the same time as making the bigger brands sit up and take notice. But, introducing change in response to market conditions rather than as part of your brand values is not necessarily a bad thing. If it’s implemented successfully, the reason for a company having a particular business practice will change over time, and we all benefit.

What appears to be the problem in the Coles situation is that they lacked an internal champion for the cause. If they’d brought in a change management specialist who connected with the project, they would have created a strong internal and external communications program, along-side a manageable roll out, and would have been able to bring the Coles employees along on the journey, enabling them to manage an educated customer response.

Consumer sentiment is in a period of change, and some industries are already seeing the effects of this movement. Several high profile fast fashion brands are posting consistent losses, which many experts are attributing to consumers becoming more aware of the need to change their throw away buying habits and opt for a more environmentally sustainable option, along with purchasing from brands that can evidence an ethical supply chain.

The major issue for Coles right now is that they have created a great deal of mistrust with their customers and the wider public. Whilst it’s human nature to be resistant to change, something which a comprehensive education program can deal with, a great deal of the online conversation seems to be highly critical of the move. This would suggest that Coles has severely misjudged the wider sentiment.

In the age of the online conversation, it’s now very easy for Coles to do what any leading brand should do. Listen to the audience. They can then offer that they misread the situation, reinstate their position on plastic bags and bring in that expert to create an education and communication program both internally and for their customers.

The supermarket duopoly has successfully spent the last 30 years or more changing consumer buying habits by dictating our choices on their shelves. So, with the right program in place, they should have no problem in directing our choices for the benefit of our planet.


Karen Porter is the founder and creative director of Underground Communications, a boutique PR and Communications agency delivering communication strategies that help companies and brands share their positive social impact stories.