I’m interested in understanding where brands go wrong when good intentions ultimately send them down a hellish slippery slope. You know what I’m talking about right? That campaign where the creative team is absolutely convinced that they nailed it, only to have the audience backlash roll in like a tidal wave. It always begs the question of whether brands should engage in social activist issues or not. Can a brand demonstrate that it can be conscious and ethically engaged beyond its bottom-line marketing objective? It’s a love-hate relationship. When a brand gets it, we show some real love. But when a brand misses it, boy do we rain down the hate.
We’re several weeks into 2018 and it didn’t take long for another brand campaign to hit and miss. In January, H&M was again in the spotlight and squirming under the scrutiny of the global audience after the brand executed an ill-advised marketing campaign that drew the outrage of social media galore for its racial undertones. H&M is a brand that prides itself on environmentally friendly apparel and bringing sustainable change across the value chain in the business of fashion. And what better industry than fashion to be ethi-cool. The H&M brand has been named one of the world’s most ethical brands for seven consecutive years. This recognition is bestowed by the Ethisphere Institute which rates brands on five indicators; ethics and compliance, reputation, leadership and innovation, governance, corporate citizenship and responsibility, and culture of ethics. And this, for me, is where the questionable hoodie adverts confounded logic. How did a self-proclaimed ethi-cool brand miss the ethical goal post with what seemed to be quite an obvious racial stereotype? And it is not the first time that H&M has been under the public gaze for controversial and unethical conduct. The brand has, in recent years, been associated with labour rights violations and contraventions in manufacturing safety, to name but a few.
They join the ranks of Nivea, Dove and Pepsi to name a few. In 2017, these three were among the brand fails of marketing gone wrong. Remember Pepsi and Kendall Jenner? The campaign aimed to show engagement with a growing global sentiment arising out of civil rights / resistance movements like #BlackLivesMatter. We saw Kendall Jenner, a global millennial brand influencer, leading the cause of revolution by simply handing over a Pepsi can. Social media responded with words like tone-deaf, misappropriation, controversial, trivial, white and economic privilege/ignorance. Basically, it was a mess and the ad was subsequently pulled. Then there was Nivea with its ‘Invisible for Black & White’ deodorant campaign. With a tagline like ‘White is Purity’ they had to know they were walking into a landmine. It got so bad that white supremacists embraced Nivea, to its everlasting shame. They get no sympathy with me. And yep, they also had to pull that one. There will be more blunders, I’m sure. And they will continue raising the question of ethics, particularly as they relate to the branding industry across the marketing, advertising and design disciplines. So, what can ethically-driven and sustainably-minded brands take away from this reputation blunder?
Ethical branding is about showing a commitment to sustainable development and it’s important to acknowledge that times are changing, and we are in a new era of responsible business. Sustainability is advancing from the closed quarters of C-suite executives to marketing departments, brand touchpoints and customer UX (user experiences). Also, the trend of conscious consumerism means brands have an audience that is socially plugged in and quick on engagement. Consequently, it’s increasingly important for reputation marketers and custodians of impact brands to understand how the ethical factor facilitates the marriage of sustainability and conscious consumption. Here are three ways in which brands can show due diligence in cultivating a culture of ethics across brand touchpoints.
Brands are about creating opportunities that deliver value and they are ethical when they deliver shared value. It’s important to reflect this across the value chain because customers are not just consumers, they are everyone who has a hand in making the brand come to life. Every moment of encounter and point of engagement with a brand is an opportunity to craft the kind of experience and connection that tells people you care about them, even when they are not spending money on you. And showing care is fundamentally about seeing through the eyes of your stakeholders, customers and consumers. Brands will continually miss the mark when they try to appropriate lived experiences that they have no real insight into. In a world where relevance puts pressure on creatives and communicators to craft a space for their share of voice in global dialogues much bigger than the brand, it takes some skill, tact and a certain nuance to navigate those spaces.
No man is an island and no brand can exist in a socio-economic bubble. Digital brand marketing means that a local concept is at any given moment subject to a global audience. So, a brand needs to ensure that its tone of voice translates accurately and is a truthful representation of its identity. Intercultural competence is important because a different perspectives, voices and backgrounds are often underestimated in executing brand creatives. And yes, it is all about that big feather-ruffling word called diversity. Would brands miss the mark like this, or in some cases walk straight into a fiasco with eyes wide shut, if the make-up of the team and executive decision makers was more diverse? And not just at junior or mid-level management but all the way up to executive. I’d like to think not. Ensuring diversity from marketing leadership down to the makeup of brand teams and creative agents is about having a plurality of voices. This creates space for a meeting of great minds and people identify strongly with brands that reflect their part of the world, their way of life and their journeys and aspirations.
Finally, ethical branding requires executive will and this is where brand leadership can show its quality. Leaders whose personal brands are closely aligned to or are an extension of the corporate brand can become strong advocates of responsible business and ethical branding. Brand custodians need to ensure that there is not a perception of dissonance between the leadership brand and the corporate brand. It has happened, for instance, with workplace harassment scandals that plagued the likes of Uber in the previous year. On the corporate front, the brand was sending all the right messages about tackling discrimination and sexual harassment. However, some decision makers who were part of the tech start-up’s leadership structures behaved in ways that were contrary to their pledges of good governance and ethical conduct.
Business ethics have been part of corporate dialogues for many years. But the area of brand ethics is relatively unchartered territory. We are in the era of responsible business and brands have a key role to play in shaping ethical conduct across the disciplines of marketing, advertising and design. When brands look at the world through the lens of opportunity, community and responsibility, they are on course to building ethical business assets that put people ahead of product. And with marketing spend set to increase, perhaps brands are better served if they shift focus to wellbeing, diversity and leadership in their messaging. Transforming your brand culture into one that is ethically-driven will do more good than harm. It’s the least you can do so start to