To stand out in today’s marketplace, brands must stand for something. The global events of the last 12 months have resulted in a profound re-evaluation of our shared value systems.
It is true that people have always cared about their economic security, the health and safety of their families and tried to figure out how to navigate social systems that prioritise the few at the top. But it’s easy to get caught up in other concerns when everything is running along as normal – where to go on holiday, whether this purchase or that will bring us fulfilment, how to get ahead in our jobs.
And then along comes a global pandemic and disrupts normal life for all of us. Not to mention the mass adoption of digital technology that has increased polarisation and the spread of misinformation, as well as sparking privacy concerns. Or the awakening of social consciousness in the form of Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, and the #MeToo movement.
In times of uncertainty and fear, it’s natural for humans to take stock about the things that are truly important to them, like:
Family and friends
Community and kindness
The natural world
Making or growing things
Finding ways to recharge our batteries
There are questions we ask in a crisis to clarify our values and understand whether the lives we’re living align with them.
Brandwatch shared the following chart of how our New Year’s resolutions have changed over the past few years. We’re valuing connection and learning more than lifestyle changes for the first time in years.
In short – kindness and connection is in, abstinence is out.
Evidence for changing consumer behaviour
As the systems underpinning our societies have been exposed – as outdated at best and destructive at worst – people are demanding more. And while those demands are aimed at governments around the world, we all realise that change may not come from the top down. Certainly not as fast as it needs to.
And so the attention has turned to businesses, NGOs and grassroots movements to deliver change.
Consider the following data arising from various surveys conducted in 2020:
71% of consumers prefer buying from brands that align to their values
83% of millennials look for value alignment
62% of buyers buy from companies that support their political and social beliefs
75% of millennials say that the pandemic has highlighted new issues and made them more sympathetic towards the needs of the local community
What we buy is strongly related to our identity. Our purchases reinforce the image we have of ourselves that we want to project to the world. And as our personal values come into renewed focus, we are wanting to do business with brands that align to our values.
The good news for businesses is that you can still be successful while doing good.
The Better Business Better World report from the Business and Sustainable Development Commission found that addressing the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals could unlock $12tn worth of market opportunities.
And businesses operating from a place of purpose benefit from competitive advantage, employee satisfaction, customer loyalty and investor confidence.
This leaves marketers in a bit of a conundrum. They want to respond to changing customer expectations and connect their brand to the customer’s values.
But in today’s ‘cancel culture’, when all our lives are played out in full view and nothing stays hidden, brands need to ensure they have their house in order before the marketing department starts talking about their positive impact on the world.
We don’t need to name names, but most of us can probably bring to mind brands who have tried to respond to the climate emergency, social justice protests or other movements, only to crash and burn.
So to understand what ethical or purpose-driven marketing is, it might help to first look at what it is not.
What is ethical marketing and how can brands get started?
Ethical or purpose-driven marketing is about telling the story of the good that your business is already doing in the world. It’s not about buzz words or jumping on trending hashtags. It’s about the long-term concrete actions that you take every day to improve the lives of your employees, your supply chain, the community you’re a part of and your customers.
Authenticity, transparency and humility are the best ways to navigate the changing landscape.
The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s and it’s used to describe marketing that is intended to make a company appear more ethical or sustainable than it actually is. It’s trying to change something from the outside in rather than have the outside be a natural reflection of what’s inside.
John Grant, the author of Greener Marketing, points out that the new baseline for companies today is to be ‘Not Bad’.
“Not bad is a commitment to minimise negative impacts. With no skeletons in your closet. No child labour, no excessive carbon emissions, no carcinogenic ingredients. But it goes beyond harm reduction into innovation. Embracing new technologies, market segments. Hybrid cars were a typical Not Bad innovation.”
Once you’ve nailed the basics, he says, you can go on to create ‘Net Good’ – making the world better because of how you do business.
A framework for ethical marketing
To help brands navigate the ever-evolving terrain, we propose the following framework to avoid falling into greenwashing.
Live your purpose
There are a number of organisations that can help brands ensure their business practices are all above board. We love B Corp for this.
Its B Impact Assessment is one of the most straightforward and holistic views of a company. It covers how a business treats its employees, the local community, the environment and their customers as well as the governance process it has in place.
There are quick wins businesses can put in place, like switching to renewable energy or making leadership teams more diverse, as well as longer-term activities, like ensuring supply chains are fair and transparent.
Put purpose at the heart of your marketing strategy
What does your audience truly value and how does that intersect with your brand? What are your competitors doing and how can you stand out from the crowd? What is it in your brand’s heritage or founders’ stories that will resonate in the marketplace? How do you treat your customers data and respect their privacy?
These are questions for the strategy to answer and they come from research, immersion sessions, workshops and testing.
Brands need a structured approach to marketing that flows from the core purpose of the company for the message to have staying power.
Use your ethical marketing toolkit to connect with your audience
Putting the effort in up front means that when you’re ready to go to market, you’ll have a toolkit filled with what you need to connect authentically with your customers.
This might include things like:
Your vision statement or key policies
Tone of voice and visual guidelines
A content strategy to highlight stories for the common good
Creative ideas for online and offline formats
A distribution plan
A measurement framework
People are ready for change
There is an urgency in the air. People want things to change. And brands have a key role to play in building a society that works for everyone. But it’s a delicate dance and it’s essential to get your house in order before you start talking about how ethical you are.
As we look forward to life post-Covid – whatever form that takes – we know that people have been inspired to take positive action to improve their lives and the lives of those in their communities. Now it’s time for businesses to do the same.
Jake Third and Julie Reid, Hallam.