Adland’s New Year’s Resolution

The advertising industry is evolving. The rise of the conscious consumer means it’s no longer enough for brands to just sell products, they are expected to use their platform to better society. However, as we’ll explore, convincing the public that you truly uphold ethical values is becoming increasingly difficult.

4 out of 10 consumers say they’ve abandoned brands due to poor corporate behaviour (Mediacom, 2017). Indeed, half of respondents to a recent Mediacom study said they are willing to pay more for a brand that supports a cause that is important to them. Younger respondents were most likely to show socially conscious attitudes. Of the surveyed 18 to 24-year-olds, 49% say they have bought a product specifically because of the brand’s values (Mediacom, 2017). It is this millennial demographic that is driving brands to practice socially responsible marketing. The group’s purchasing power is set to grow over the next few decades as older generations transfer an estimated $30 trillion in wealth, and marketers are preparing themselves accordingly (Forbes, 2017).

That said, it’s not enough for brands to invest in a CSR campaign and expect millennials and other ethically minded consumers to come flocking. Blunders in the name of ethical marketing, by brands large and small, have caused consumers to become suspicious when this approach is adopted. In the age of social media, consumers are quick to call out brands if what they say doesn’t add up or if they don’t deliver on their promises.

Pepsi’s now infamous 2017 campaign was a disaster of Kardashian proportions. It’s a notable example of a brand’s unsuccessful attempt to piggyback on an important social issue. For those that haven’t seen it, Kendall Jenner spontaneously joins a street protest and tries to defuse tensions by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi. The advert comes across as tactless and see-through, leaving viewers wondering how such a misguided idea got approved. Many called for Pepsi to put its money where its mouth is and donate to the activist groups it was appropriating in the advert. However, this didn’t happen. Following the release of the ad, sentiment towards Pepsi plummeted by 20% (Brandwatch, 2017).

More recently, Philip Morris, an international tobacco giant, brought in the New Year with a resolution to give up cigarettes. A full-page advert ran in UK papers outlining its plans to launch a smoker support website and distribute alternative products to help achieve its ambition. Interestingly, critics’ main concern was that PMI hadn’t set a date for total removal of cigarettes from its portfolio, leaving them free to take action whenever it suited them. In the current climate, plagued by over-promising and under delivering, brands must hold themselves accountable for the promises they make.

Patagonia is a brand that has managed to become synonymous with ethical practices. It was the first Californian business to register as a B Corp, which means it holds itself socially and financially accountable and must demonstrate a “material positive impact on society and the environment” (Salon, 2017). Consumers value voluntary actions of this kind. Last September, Patagonia released its first TV spot in 44 years. Instead of peddling its outdoor gear, the advert addressed the selling off of America’s national parkland to private interests. At $700,000, the advert wasn’t cheap and the fact that it’s so lightly branded is enough to send a Marketing Director’s head spinning. However, Patagonia’s ability to confidently create work that speaks to, and in this case, actively defends the interests of its consumers, makes for ethically minded marketing that’s easy to get behind.

The role and responsibilities of brands in society is an increasingly complex minefield to navigate. Even those with good intentions face a challenge in convincing the public that they are genuine and can be trusted. Credible CSR efforts need to be perceived by consumers as serving the betterment of society more than the brand behind it. The success of these campaigns is in their execution. A light marketing touch goes a long way. Consumers continue to seek out brands that uphold ethical values. However, it’s not enough to just make claims, consumers want to see evidence of impact.