How to be good in a harsh world
Consumers expect brands to have a purpose. But what is the best way to achieve this?
Consumers expect brands to have a purpose. But what is the best way to achieve this and how can advertising and conscious capitalism exist side by side?
It’s fair to say that Google has done a lot to shape the world, but one of the ways it has captured the zeitgeist is its corporate motto: “Don’t be evil.”
Plenty of businesses have serious aspirations to do good and be seen to do good, but leaders pushing this kind of philosophy often face setbacks – Google itself being an example.
Advertising and conscious capitalism can exist, as Mike Barry, director of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer, says. For him, there are three drivers of sustainability: growing competition for resources, social demands from consumers and the emergence of disruptive business models.
But implementing a sustainable approach is not straightforward. As Freya Williams, chief executive of sustainability consultancy Futerra, argues, companies are in a position to lead change but can only do so if there is a plausible business case, which too often can be hard to make out.
Bringing everyone along
One example is the ‘green split’ – when consumers say they want to live a sustainable life and are willing to pay more for it, but fail to follow through with their behaviour. This is because the marketing of sustainable products,Williams explains, only usually succeeds in speaking to the ‘super greens’ – the 16 per cent of consumers totally committed to sustainability – and misses the mainstream ‘middle greens’.
“Almost all the marketing around sustainability has done a horrible job of bringing everyone else along,” she says. “Every time we use a green leaf or a polar bear or talk about saving the planet, we reinforce the view of the middle greens that this is for the super greens. They don’t want to be them – they see them as crunchy-granola hippies and rich, elitist snobs.”
Williams argues that sustainable brands that succeed are those that speak to consumers in terms they expect for that category and agencies must “bring the consumer voice to the client”.
For Barry, it means adapting successful marketing from the past to cater to that mainstream group. “An awful lot of advertising and marketing will remain about desirability, but it’s no longer just about asking people to buy a product based on functionality or aesthetic appeal – there’s purpose in there as well,” he says. But Chris Arnold, founder of Creative Orchestra and author of Ethical Marketing & the New Consumer, believes the problem is more fundamental. “Making sustainability claims in advertising is almost always unsuccessful,” he says. “Research by TNS has found ads that make sustainability claims are less trusted than average because they aren’t seen as plausible. It’s not what brands say but what they do. Consumers seek out a brand’s ethos, which is what they judge them on.”
Arnold thinks there needs to be a major shift in social attitudes, driven by word of mouth, before the public accepts the ethical claims made by businesses, especially big corporations. “New entrants will have an easier job, but any business with a history is bound to have skeletons in its closet,” he says.
Barry agrees that winning consumer trust is about commitment to the right practices throughout the business, “not about making your existing business model less bad”. And marketers need to be fearless, he adds.
“Business is very nervous about having a point of view in this febrile world of politics, bruising journalists and social media, where you can never win,” Barry continues, citing a campaign M&S ran with Breast Cancer Now that attracted criticism from a “significant minority” of people for not doing enough. “The old M&S would have been very scared of annoying one person, let alone several thousand,” Barry says. “And yet we took it on the chin and said: ‘That’s a successful campaign’.”
Marks & Spencer… Breast Cancer Now tie-up was criticised for not doing enough