The ethical consumer may be a well identified buyer in the marketing press, but customers themselves seem somewhat confused by what counts as a responsible brand.
I call it the goodness movement – the rush to appear responsible that has gripped global brands over recent years. Recognising that ethics, sustainability and CSR are now consideration factors in consumer purchasing (although we could debate the extent), brands are eager to show the world that they are doing what they can. But how much of what they are saying is actually driving how they operate and the decisions they make?
In a recent address at Cannes, Monica Lewinsky made a plea for brands to play a more direct role in building a compassionate society: one where the power of social media to generate shame and humiliation (and gain money by doing so) was eschewed in favour of an environment that collectively supported and inspired individuals and their actions.
As more brands seek to engage in what Denise Yohn has referred to as the “cultural conversations” of today, they encounter reactions ranging from strong endorsement to cynicism about their motives. Starbucks, for example, hit turbulence with its Race Together campaign. (There’s an excellent analysis of why here.) Levis on the other hand seems to have had an easier ride with its Water<Less campaign. Patagonia’s Don’t Buy This campaign was hailed by many as honest, genuine and utterly in keeping with their beliefs.
This thought-provoking presentation includes some interesting observations on the contrasting effects of brands on the world. On the one hand the Y&R planners point out, brands are responding to consumer expectations that they will drive social change, spending around $18 billion a year on charitable efforts and using their financial clout and influence to affect real change. On the other, some of the biggest brands now know more about us as consumers and individuals than government agencies and we have no real ways of knowing how they will use that information, and to what effect, going forward.
There are those who continue to frame the role of business in purely commercial terms. Business is hard enough, and the demands of shareholders and the markets so insistent, these people say, that companies need to avoid the ‘distractions’ of infusing a moral platform into what they do. They should just get on with making profits. That’s their purpose. After all that’s what shareholders demand and that’s typically what they’re compensated on.
When Rosser Reeves first proposed the Unique Selling Proposition many decades ago now, the world was a very different place. Products still had the potential to actually be different, advertising was largely confined to mainstream channels and brands were, for the most part, identifiers. But with the evolution of best-practice manufacturing, the fragmentation of channels and the increasing development of brands as monikers for consumer lifestyle, I can’t help wondering whether the USP is now redundant.
Marketers and business writers have been talking for ages about disintermediation – cutting out the middle man – in a bid to achieve more direct and economically efficient relationships. But the battle between Hachette and Amazon reminds us there are still very powerful players mediating between customer and producer.
This analysis of the top 612 publicly traded companies reveals that while the conversation around responsibility is now in full flight, the words, for the most part, are well ahead of the deeds. The contrasts speak for themselves.
At some point, a culture that is serious about what it intends must put those intentions in writing. That’s about a lot more than documentation. Declaring what you come to work for collectively amounts to a commitment. So many companies squander this opportunity in my view. They market what is happening rather than explaining it. They expand on what it means for the company rather than how it benefits the individual. They paint a process and not a picture.