Moral power to your elbow

Corporate branding is entering a new era. Changes in what organisations need mean the “logo boys” no longer have the ammunition to deliver. Companies are facing a new set of issues, ranging from corporate brand accountability and brand flexibility to the importance of the internal brand and corporate brand ethics.

We’ve all read that consumers now look beyond a company’s product or service brand to the corporate brand that hovers behind it. Consumers are now, we are informed, seeking to understand a company’s ethical stance on a range of issues.

So, ethics are on the marketing agenda. Or are they? And do they ultimately have an impact on the purchasing of products and services? Moreover, what can companies do if ethics are of such importance?

Corporate Edge recently conducted a national survey into corporate ethics to get a steer on how people feel about the way companies conduct themselves.

Respondents were asked to rank companies and institutions in order of how much attention they pay to public opinion. Results were startling (see table 1). Consumer goods companies and grocery retailers are seen as more responsive to the people than our national institutions.

Choice is another important factor. Consumers are spoilt for choice and are getting increasingly lazy. Given this breadth of choice, people are looking for more and more issues on which they can vote. And ethics are already being used to influence choice: just look at The Body Shop, The Co-operative Bank, ethical investments and so on.

This was vividly demonstrated in our research. Seventy-one per cent of respondents said that if they knew a company was investing in non-ethical areas, it would affect their decision to buy shares. On the thorny subject of bio-engineering, respondents showed overwhelming support (65 per cent) for Iceland’s decision not to stock genetically engineered foods, with as many as 26 per cent claiming they would choose to shop at Iceland as a result.

But there was also a strong warning for those planning cause-related marketing.

Seventy per cent of people thought companies involved with charity work were more interested in the public’s response than in the charity itself. Similarly, 65 per cent perceived corporate support for green issues to be nothing more than a cynical marketing ploy. And 60 per cent thought Van Den Bergh Foods’ Flora promotion, featuring Princess Diana’s signature, was a bad idea – despite the company’s donation to her memorial fund.

A further factor in the inexorable rise of corporate ethics is the growth of pressure groups. Politics in the developed world has become so uniformly centrist that it’s difficult to tell which party is which.

So, where do intelligent and crusading people who feel passionately about issues go? The answer is non-government organisations (NGOs) or lobby groups. They have great power and they can and do make life extremely uncomfortable for unethical companies.

Further, they have considerable public support. In our survey, 21 per cent of respondents said they supported illegal action against companies perceived as unethical.

If companies such as Marks & Spencer can come under fire, then no corporate brand is safe. People, pressure groups and the media in particular, will always be looking for a chink in the armour of big corporations.

Nike first ran into trouble when it narrowly avoided a “fatwa” for one of its shoe designs, but it’s since faced charges of using child labour in the developing world.

When respondents were asked what action they would take if they knew a company was employing children to make their product, 58 per cent said they would boycott the brand. There’s already a growing anti-Nike lobby – it should take care.

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