USP Creative

When brands behave badly

03/05/2016
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Mainstream marketing has long moved on from shouting messages from 30” TV ads, towards a relationship of dialogue and purposeful support.  Indeed the internet, or more specifically social media, has created a fundamental shift in the power balance between consumers and brands.   ‘What role could this brand play in my life’ a consumer may ask. ‘How can it help me to feel happier, healthier or more fulfilled?’  Today brands are expected to do far more than simply provide a product or service and those brands that involve consumers in an open and trusting relationship will succeed, whilst those that renege on their promise will be severely punished.

Interestingly we now find ourselves entering a further stage in the shift away from the traditional marcoms methodology and into a world where non-verbal messaging is more powerful than anything we can say about our products, and one where brands can be irretrievably damaged by consumers’ judgments on their corporate behaviour.

We now look at brands to guide our decision making in more than just product terms – eg Ariel’s ‘Turn to 30’ campaign and Persil’s ‘Small and Mighty’ concentrated format have encouraged consumers to change their laundry behavior for a positive environmental impact, and achieved brand preference in a market where price, quality and convenience are entry level hygiene factors.  These are both perfect examples of well-behaved brands being well rewarded for doing so.

On the other hand consider the response to Mondelez International not paying corporation tax and shrinking the size of Cadbury products in an attempt to hide what is in real terms a price increase (a far cry from Cadbury’s Quaker roots), and you will see a level of anger not seen since Nestle were boycotted for contributing to infant deaths in poor communities by promoting bottle feeding (over breast) in unsanitary conditions.  Indeed, Cadbury’s sales fell by £6m when they reduced the number of their Crème Eggs in boxes from six to five.

Taxes are a particular hot potato right now with Cadbury, Google and Amazon (to name a few) all under fire for not paying sufficient taxes at a time of extreme austerity measures.  The problem is exacerbated further if your bad behavior is in direct contradiction to your brand positioning.  For instance the Virgin brand has always been positioned as the people’s champion (David to Goliath) in whichever category they operate.  This has created significant problems for Virgin Care, firstly for avoiding corporation tax and then, adding insult to injury, profiting from privatizing areas of the NHS – in the eyes of the consumer this is hypocrisy on a grand scale.

In the digital age these things spread like forest fires.  Remember the world boycotting tuna because of the dolphins?  It now happens on a daily basis with brands like Ben and Jerry’s boycotted for their contractual relationship with an Israeli manufacturer, Tesco for delaying payments to suppliers, BP for their environmental disasters (they lost 55% shareholder value after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and have never fully recovered), and anything from China on account of their national record of poor human rights. 

Both Green and Black’s Craig Sams and The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick are on record as claiming that multinationals buying ethical companies can positively influence the parent’s corporate behaviour, but this must not be seen as a short-cut to a moral make-over.  L’Oreal’s purchase of The Body Shop and Nestle’s Kenco’s sustainable positioning have not pulled the wool over the eyes of the public, although it can provide a valuable kick-start to a positive journey, managed correctly.

So what can we learn from this?  Brands’ stories are increasingly written by their users and observers and so it is vital that business owners today have a clearly defined brand, delivered consistently across all touchpoints.  Do this and consumers will buy your products and services and the country’s top talent will choose you over the next employer.  Define your role, make a positive contribution to peoples’ lives, and above all, don’t let them down.