It’s time brands stood down from the moral high ground

Companies that have actively promoted their brands as ethical have only themselves to blame for having to take the rap for the world’s social ills, says Sean Brierley

Strange days indeed when brick-hurling thugs dressed in combat gear, who vandalise property and terrorise the centre of London, are setting Britain’s moral agenda. But, whether we like it or not, the message that they are so forcefully advocating is getting through. The ethical records of companies and their brands are being scrutinised and attacked as never before.

From retailers being blamed for foot and mouth to fashion brands being blamed for third world poverty, brands are no longer being judged on their quality or price, but on the ethical record of the company that produces them. And the media is lapping it up. Complex issues such as third-world poverty, environmental pollution and the foot-and-mouth crisis are easier to understand when they are linked to the business practices of the companies that own the Nike, BP and Sainsbury’s brands.

But why is it that businesses are so vulnerable to such criticism? And what, if anything, should marketing people do to resist it?

Ironically these groups have the Thatcher government of the Eighties to thank for the fact that business ethics is now centre stage.

The Thatcher government’s fiscal agenda was backed by an extreme laissez-faire philosophy which called for the rolling back of the state and the replacement of state benefits with private sector donation.

The government sweetened the return to Victorian values by promoting “caring capitalism”. It resulted in schemes such as Business In The Community to promote corporate giving. Businesses were encouraged to get involved in social issues and show that they were more than simply in business to make a profit.

In the Nineties, marketing departments responded to the new ethical agenda through cause-related marketing. The showcase event for cause-related marketing this year was the Comic Relief telethon, where a parade of brands elbowed onto the stage to brazenly display their ethical credentials.

The worst moment at this year’s event had to be when an enormous tub of Flora was pulled onto the stage and the lid was lifted to reveal the figure of &£250,000. If done for the cynical reason of getting cheap prime time advertising on the BBC, then that would be explicable. But no, it was done to associate the Flora brand with a worthy cause.

What has the Flora brand got to do with third-world poverty? Consumers don’t buy Flora because it donates some of its profits to charity, they buy it because it is a good product, it sells at a reasonable price and it has the right brand values to sit in their fridge.

It is no accident that those companies that are most vulnerable to protesters and to media hostility – Shell, BP, Nike – have had the same corporate brand as their product brands. Companies, such as Nestlé, which have umbrella branding for all their products are also easy targets.

Brands are powerful because they are removed from the production process and detached from social and economic life. They are strong because they operate on the cultural, not the economic, level. Brands that attempt to champion political causes and right economic wrongs are exposing themselves to the very real life practices that they are supposed to be divorced from.

Because of this, businesses are now paying the price for their complicity and are being held accountable for their ethical record.

From a news point of view, journalists love nothing better than to reveal how a company which says that it supports campaigns against child poverty in the UK is paying kids 10p a day in Thailand to make baseball caps.

Those pious companies that have placed cause-related marketing at the centre of their marketing strategies have got themselves in a terrible mess – witness Body Shop and Benetton. They become judged not on the quality of their products, but on their ethical stance.

Recently, Coca-Cola provided a very good example of the mess that judging brands on their social commitment can create. It tried to put a toe-curling spin on the tie-up it had signed with Harry Potter: that it was part of Coke’s commitment to youth literacy. Two weeks later, Coke issued a statement that it would stop forcing schools to sign exclusivity agreements and reduce its logo activity around schools.

The problem is that nobody believes these ethical commitments. No one believed that McDonald’s was a moral company committed to educational initiatives while it was pursuing two protesters through the courts, and they don’t believe it now.

This is not an argument suggesting companies should avoid public accountability. On the contrary, companies that violate international and national laws should be made accountable, and businesses should make proper use of their company secretaries and communications directors to ensure that the business is acting morally and within the law.

But ethics should be kept away from brands. If companies want to make the world a better place, they should do so through company-level initiatives, not through the brands. Brands should not serve as an opportunity to associate companies with feel-good causes – making low-profile contributions should be enough. In this way companies can provide real practical help, such as offering skills training and expertise to the voluntary sector in a similar way that lawyers provide pro bono advice.

Marketing departments could then get on with what they do best – supporting and building their brands rather than having to fight an unwinnable moral war with the media and the protesters.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and the author of the Advertising Handbook

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