How ethical is your brand?

We really can't get enough of Mel's way with words so we've invited her to write another enlightening thought piece. In this blog Mel tackles the topical issue of ethics in branding. At Rusty Monkey, we are passionate about creating and developing brands that will shape the future for the better. We believe that making your brand more ethical and responsible will have a beneficial impact on your business as well as your customers and the world in general.


How ethical is your brand?

Monkey Contributor: Mel

It's easy to think of advertising, and capitalism generally, in a fairly cynical way. Companies driven only by a desire for profit will sell anything to anyone, regardless of if it is good for them or the planet - right? If your audience believes that this is true of your brand, chances are they won't feel very inclined to buy anything from you. So is there a way to advertise more ethically, and to make your products more ethical?

In my last article, I talked about the advertising strategies in the TV show Mad Men - specifically how Don Draper used emotional advertising to sell cigarettes. At the time, I mentioned that this example made me feel uncomfortable, because it doesn't feel very ethical. Even knowing that cigarettes are unhealthy, Don Draper seems perfectly happy convincing people to buy them - because that's his job.

My question for you is: Do brands today have an obligation to protect the interests of their consumers by behaving in a more ethical way?

Couple enjoying a mountain lake view

I think things have changed a lot since the 60s, and that is mostly because of the internet. Online reviews, access to information, the ability to research, and the archiving of everything means that brands are now held much more accountable for their actions and their products.

Advertising certainly has a dubious history. In the early twentieth century, the goal was to convince people they needed things by manipulating their emotions. In the Adam Curtis documentary The Century of the Self (2002) - WARNING: Contains some graphic and upsetting images -  it's posited that the origins of advertising as we know it today stem from the early works of Freud and, most instrumentally, his American nephew Edward Bernays.

Bernays learned from the use of propaganda during the First World War that people's emotions could be manipulated to produce a certain outcome. National solidarity during wartime was the result of carefully planned propaganda pieces designed to elicit certain emotional responses.

After the war was over, Bernays hypothesised that the same method could be used to get people to buy certain products over others. He knew that he couldn't use the term 'propaganda' anymore, because it had taken on negative connotations. So, instead, he called his new method of mass manipulation 'public relations.'

For Bernays, the masses were nothing more than passive consumers, driven by their emotions and unable to make rational decisions. The aim of marketing, for Bernays, was to manipulate people's emotions to such an extent that you could get them to do whatever you wanted, regardless of if it was in their best interests.

If you have any kind of conscience, this feels like exploitation. But is it possible for advertising to be ethical?

Person looking at billboards in New York

It's all about value and values

One of the main criticisms of advertising today is that it is ubiquitous. There are so many adverts around us in our daily lives that we are forced to tune them out. They become an annoyance, and they actively make our lives less enjoyable.

So one of the challenges we must face is how to get our product out there in the public sphere without adding to this irritating white noise of advertising. One of the best ways to do this is to use your brand to bring real value, either directly to the consumer, or to the world in general. We call this cultural marketing, and we base it on Simon Sinek's golden circle theory.

'Very few people or organisations know why they do what they do. [...] By why I mean what's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organisation exist?'

Making a profit is simply a result of your company's existence - it should not be your sole purpose for being. Identifying the benefits your company can bring to people can strengthen your brand and sell your products more effectively than bombarding people with advertising.

The aim of cultural marketing is not to manipulate people's emotions so that they believe they need your product, it is to reach the people who already believe the same things as you by demonstrating that you empathise with how they feel. It's not about manipulation, but about communication.


Why bother?

As marketers, none of us can deny that it's important that people buy our products. Without this, we would cease to exist. So why bother with ethics? Why not just manipulate people to buy what we want them to buy?

Well, basic human decency, for one. We have an obligation to ensure that we are actually making people's lives better, not just pretending to do so. But we've all got to make money, right? It isn't enough to simply 'do the right thing', right? Fortunately, there are some real business benefits to making your brand more ethical.

You only have to look at the growth of brands we today consider to be ethical to see that people, in general, respond better to and have more loyalty for companies that behave in an ethical manner. Only recently BBC Radio 4 published this article reporting on the rise in popularity of vegan clothing. With the harmful repercussions of using meat products at the forefront of our minds, many consumers now feel more comfortable buying a pair of vegan boots than they do a leather alternative.

Person wearing Vegan Dr. Martens

By engaging in an ethical cause, you will find it easier to generate lasting connections with your audience, who will ideally believe what you believe. You'll also set up a meaningful legacy for your company that goes beyond simple profit, and that those who inherit your company after you retire will be able to use to drive it onwards. Your cause will not only help you create a loyal audience, it will help you attract loyal staff, and your business will have more success and longevity as a result.

Some of the most successful brands in the world are successful primarily because they have tapped into the values of their customers and built their brand around that. Whether it's as simple as providing a more environmentally friendly toilet roll, or something as nuanced as challenging the status quo, people respond better to companies that relate to their values.

Value-based advertising isn't just good for your customers, it's good for you too. In a sea of companies selling the same products, people will choose the one that's doing something different.


How can we be better?

So you're convinced that being more ethical is good business practice. But how do you go about doing it?

First, watch The Naked Brand. This video exposes how distrustful people are of big brands and business, and offers an alternative way to think about branding. Rather than bombarding customers with fairly meaningless advertisements, think about other ways you can reach out to them and make a connection. The film uses Pepsi as an example, a big brand that took their entire marketing budget and used it to invest in local community projects instead of paying for traditional advertising. By bringing value to others they gained far more traction and customer loyalty than they would have done with a few billboards.

Empty Billboard

Think about all the ways you can make your business more ethical. You don't have to do everything all at once - steady and gradual improvement is better than no improvement at all.


1. Improve your product

This seems obvious, but it's key. In a world where the cost of living is outstripping the average wage, it's important for customers that they get value for money. They want a product that works properly, is made from good quality materials, is beneficial for their health and wellbeing, and will last a long time.


2. Improve your environmental practices

Going green today is vital. Concerns about climate change drive consumers' decisions, and if you're just a little bit greener than your competitor they'll be more inclined to choose you. In addition, having a better environmental policy is beneficial for the planet and the human race in general, so there's no reason not to do it.


3. Ensure your staff are treated well and paid fairly

Ethical treatment of workers is often high on a consumer's list. Not only will this give you a better reputation among your customers, it will also help you retain staff and grow. As an employer, you have a responsibility to your employees. As well as ensuring they are paid fairly for their work, think about other benefits you can bring them. What is your maternity/paternity leave policy like? Do your staff often work overtime without being paid? Do you offer a life insurance policy? Are there other perks you can invest in, such as gym membership, social events, better facilities, and so on?


4. Ensure your entire supply chain is ethical

It's one thing to look after your in-house staff, but if your company still buys products from sweatshops where workers are abused, underpaid, or not paid at all, then your entire brand will be tarnished. Aside from the obvious humane obligations to ensure all workers are treated well, the PR ramifications of having an exploitative supply chain can be impossible to recover from.


5. Use recyclable packaging

This is an easy win! Get rid of all that plastic and polystyrene. Use recycled cardboard and other reusable materials as much as possible. Make your packaging good quality, easy to recycle or reuse, and enjoyable to open. This can make the customer's experience of your product significantly better.


6. Work with charities and invest in the community

Aligning yourself with a charity that shares your values is a great way to get good publicity, associate your brand with an ethical cause and bring real value to others. It's a win-win situation, because the charity will also benefit from the increased publicity, and the entire community will be richer as a result. The more you're seen to be giving back, the more people will trust you and associate your product with positive thoughts.

Swiss Cheese plant

Some of our favourite ethical brands

If in doubt, look at other companies for inspiration. Here are some of the brands we think are doing a great job of being more ethical.

Worker making Dr.Marten shoes

Dr Martens

Dr Martens products are high quality and designed to last. They were created for working people, and the brand is still seen to represent the empowerment of the working classes. They offer a wide and popular vegan range, and use recyclable packaging. They're associated with a strong counter-culture, despite also doing well in the mainstream. The brand has created a community that feels exclusive even though it's so ubiquitous.

If you wear Dr Martens, you're part of something important, and the whole brand is built around this. The Dr Martens brand is based on the philosophy that ‘commerce is only a by-product of engagement.’ They don't just sell boots - they offer membership to a club you want to be part of.

They've had their challenges, most notably being associated with a small fascist element of the skinhead culture, which they overcame by aligning themselves with the more liberal values of the punk rock era.

For a more comprehensive look at the history of the brand, check out this article and this video.

Person holding Tonys Chocolonely bar

Tony's Chocoloney

This Dutch confectionary company is dedicated to fighting slavery in the cocoa sector by improving industry standards and raising awareness with its advertising and products. A quote from their chief chocolate officer (a job title we all want, let's be honest), Henk Jan Beltman, sounds like it's come directly out of the Rusty Monkey cultural marketing handbook (if we had one):

'The reason that we are a company is not that we want to sell chocolate and not that we want to make money. [...] We want to make the world a nicer place.'

The chocolate bars the company produces are made up of jagged and uneven pieces - rather than the regimented rectangles we're used to - to represent the unequal treatment and pay of those who work in the cocoa industry. The company focuses on every part of its supply chain to ensure that it is ethical - working closely with farmers, partners and suppliers to improve conditions for all involved.

Read more about their work here.

Person working at Huit Denim factory

Huit Denim

This small jeans company based in Cardigan, Wales has recently earned great fame for being worn by Meghan Markle, but their story before this is even more interesting. In 2002, Cardigan's jeans factory closed, putting 400 local people out of work. When David and Clare Hieatt decided to set up a new business in the area, it was an obvious choice to start making jeans. Now that the company has grown in size, they occupy the old factory premises, employing a lot of the people who were made redundant back in 2002, and their families. The brand is all about championing the expert craftsmanship and skill of its employees, who make every pair of jeans by hand. Needless to say, the company has been a huge success story for the local area.

You can watch the full Hiut story here.

Think you deserve to be on this list? Let us know what ethical practices you're employing to make your brand better.

Contact us for advice on your branding.

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