Just when you thought it was safe to call yourself a conscious business, you find that someone in your company has broken ranks and suddenly you have the wrath of consumer social media wars on your doorstep.

Such was the experience of South African food and clothing giant, Woolworths.  Much loved amongst South Africans consumers, Woolworths is the epitome of cool: staff wear cool black gear, sashay around in cool, grey granite tiled shops, selling superior quality food at above-average prices, which customers are happy to pay for because of the ‘Woolworths experience’ and ‘Woolworths quality’.  It’s a bit of a status symbol shopping at Woolworths.  They are very proud of their green credentials as well: MySchool cards and donations abound, environmentally friendly initiatives, ‘Do One Thing Different’ posters and logos encouraging us to act morally in our food purchase undertakings.

Except…someone in Woolworths didn’t quite keep to the brief and ended up pinching an idea from a small soda pop manufacturer, Frankie’s, copying their logos, their names and even the styling of their bottles.  Frankie’s is a tiny outfit and the legal battle that ensued has been compared to the battle of David and Goliath – and this instance, as in that epic battle, David won.  Woolworths was ordered to remove their product from the shelves and rumour has it that they have donated all their stock to charity.

There are several sobering lessons in this tale for those of us interested in conscious business.

  1. Firstly, don’t assume that once a conscious business, always a conscious business.  You have to work hard and conscientiously to keep your conscious credentials and behaviour going, and ensure that you walk your talk in all your business dealings across your organisation.  Not much room for slip-ups: people are watching.
  2. Don’t assume that everyone in your company is on board.  You might think you’re a conscious business run by conscious leaders, but just somewhere there may be someone who isn’t and that can have massive repercussions for your brand and your reputation.  If you’re going to be a conscious business, ensure that the big rules are clear for everyone to follow.
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of social media.  Consumer backlash via social media wars against Woolworths (now dubbed Woolworse) using Facebook and Twitter caused enough pressure to get the ruling in favour of Frankie’s.  From the Arab Spring to the recent MacDonald’s debacle, pedestrians and especially consumers armed with social media are a formidable force and you don’t want to get them voting against you.

It’s a sobering reminder to businesses everywhere that with levels of transparency and global connectivity at their highest levels ever, businesses can no longer get away with underhanded, unconscious (or anti-conscious) behaviour.