How ‘vice’ industries have worked their way back into public favour

How have alcohol and fast food brands made themselves respectable? By behaving better and marketing more ethically for a start.

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception,” wrote Aldous Huxley.

As I sit with my daughter at 5am on a morose Covid Monday, time moves ever so slowly.

Switch to the start of the working day. A short commute up the stairs, second coffee in hand, and open the calendar. Suddenly it’s half past one, time to cobble together a toastie before – boom – it’s 6pm. There’s simply no consistency, measure nor reason. Time is slipping by like an eel in a lubricant factory.

Lockdown in midwinter is a cruel mistress. It plays with your ability to track time. It meddles with your mood and it fiddles with your perception. Maybe this is why so many people are eschewing rational thought and backing loony conspiracy theories around Covid vaccinations, the environment and American politics.

Take Trump voters as a case in point – nearly 50% of the American (active) voting public. These aren’t imbeciles, in the medieval sense. They’re bright enough to accrue the dollars required to fly to MAGA rallies, co-ordinate a tactical barnstorm of the Capitol, purchase extravagant weaponry, drive gas-guzzling monster trucks and pay for weddings to their cousins. For some, their beliefs are true while, for everyone else, they project some of the most absurd lunacies of the modern age. It all relates to individual perception.

It was on a walk last weekend that I came to think about perception, specifically the broader negative sentiments about ‘vice’ industries – a hedonistic void I’ve worked in, on and off, for over 20 years (the last 16 of which have been in online gambling). It’s hard to defend gambling as a holistic business. By definition, it involves significant risk and there are certain cohorts of bettors who are at risk of developing problem gambling tendencies. It’s a vice industry with an image problem, and despite significant efforts to clean up its act, gambling is considered by its detractors as being akin to Kim Jong-Un trying to sneak covertly into a nuns’ tea party.

Esports is a huge but immature industry that needs to grow up fast

That said, regulated gaming operators aren’t exclusively run by evil plutocrats. Most care about their customers and are wholeheartedly behind the majority of pragmatic initiatives that protect players who may be susceptible to gambling addiction. So why is the industry so universally villified?

Reformed image

To answer that, I looked back to my early career. I spent my formative agency years working for British American Tobacco, Allied Domecq and Budweiser. Booze and Fags. Tier 1 vice industries. The Pros.

Add to these fast food, pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals and you’ve got the full house of ‘naughty’ businesses, perceived as the antithesis of contemporary, holistic commercial behaviours.

However, over the last 30 years, the vice group split. One direction became two. Booze, drugs and fast food peeled away and somehow shed their cloaks of negative perception, leaving the indefensible Big Tobacco, apathetic petrochemical and perennially slow-to-react gambling industries languishing in the sewers – to profit, pollute and wager at leisure.

The booze industry (led by brand-builder-in-chief Diageo) took control of its own destiny by forming The Portman Group – a voluntary body designed to self-regulate the marketing of Big Alcohol. By taking the reins and neutering government regulators, the industry and associated brands were able to recapture their destiny, and today, despite the obvious dangers associated with drinking, they can advertise to adults at will (with health warnings), sponsor sports and cherish a glowing reputation as marketers extraordinaire.

Look at Brewdog. It built a billion-dollar business by not giving a shit about what anyone thinks.

Product focus, customer centricity and high spending on a relentless public perception mission appear to be the required ammunition.

Fast food took a different path; one driven by product, PR and lobbying as much as brand marketing. Salads joined the menus, dietary information received prominent (although not too prominent) placement on burger wrappers, and category leaders McDonald’s and Burger King joined sugar chiefs Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in aggressive lobbying, both in the USA and Europe.

One such pan-sector effort came in 2004, following the release of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary ‘Super Size Me’. A harrowing and amusing film in equal measure, Spurlock spent a month eating nothing but extra-large McDonald’s meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The burger chain had to respond with a PR charm offensive that eventuated in ‘healthier’ items being given more prominence on the menu, whilst its rivals hid behind the counter to avoid the storm of negative perception.

BK went on a mission to reduce the volume of salt in its meals and KFC did eventually introduce its chicken salad. The chicken floggers have since sat on the subs bench for many of the more newsworthy debates around fast food and childhood obesity, but that’s not to say they don’t have a bucket of ethical batter to dispose of, not least around littering (as I’ve frequently witnessed first-hand).

Cleaning up their act is something McDonald’s has taken beyond the perceptual (lobbying, PR) and product (lower salt content, salads, fruit with kid’s meals) and into their customer experience strategy. Famously, one of its key product differentiators in the US was to have bogs cleaned thoroughly and religiously every hour. Older patrons, being in need of a tinkle more frequently than younger, nugget-munching customers, would see their pristine khazis on an emergency stop-off on road trips, buy some food by means of a ‘thank you’ and remember both experiences fondly – stopping for repeated visits in the future.

The McDonald’s philosophy is proudly displayed on its website: “Ray Kroc wanted to build a restaurant system that would be famous for providing food of consistently high quality and uniform methods of preparation. He wanted to serve burgers, fries and beverages that tasted just the same in Alaska as they did in Alabama.”

To that, the brand might well have added “consistently pristine shitters” if the juxtaposition of turds and burgers didn’t put its gross sales at risk. (It does remain, subtly, in its mantra, ‘QSCV’ – quality, service, cleanliness and value.)

Change on an ‘atomic’ level

So time is legitimately a great healer, but on its own it’s not powerful enough to create the seismic shifts in public perception required to turn a vice business into a fluffy, acceptable, kiddie-friendly brand. In order to achieve Whopper-levels of paradigm shift, you have to change on an atomic level. Product focus, customer centricity and high spending on a relentless public perception mission appear to be the required ammunition. Turn the negatives into positives, grimy products into clean ones, make bad opinions good.

Sure, there are plenty of brands out there faking it with great fiscal success but many of those that are making the most significant strides are also leading their sectors in ethical standards, at least according to ‘The World’s Most Ethical Companies’ 2020 report, which put a five year value premium of 13.5% on honourees. Most modern brands derive significant brownie points from a strong ethical and environmental stance.

The online gambling industry is either going to be sunk beneath a raft of well intentioned (but sometimes misguided) regulation, or it needs to act as one and follow the lead of fast food and Big Alcohol by bettering itself through improved marketing, customer education/protection, enhanced product, tactical lobbying and public perception – and fast.

Behaving well, marketing ethically, protecting customers, doing some good – brand purpose with a commercial engine under the hood. It might sounds like some fluffy self-help bullshit, but things have changed. People have changed.

Imagine if all of us marketing vice businesses started our strategies with a mantra to ‘make things better’. As a result, public perception would inevitably change for the better. Then you’d realise that this would almost certainly improve your (or your client’s) brand performance. For once, you wouldn’t feel sordid about your contribution. You’d feel proud.

Harry Lang is marketing director of Buzz Bingo, the UK’s biggest bingo operator. You can find him on LinkedIn or read his previous Marketing Week articles here.