The new morality of brands

The Coca-Cola brand has lived large and well in the public conscience for some time. 
On the whole, it has been regarded with positivity, achieving near perfect resonance with its carefully crafted image as a distributor of happiness, freedom, egalitarianism and carefree times. Its brand (in isolation of its tangible assets) is consistently rated as one of the most valuable in the world. Within the marketing profession it is greatly admired for its inventiveness, confidence and good creative eye.

But, last week, a report by The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges (the body that represents all of the UK’s doctors) cited “irresponsible marketing” by major food and drinks brands as a key contributor to the obesity epidemic. It highlights Coca-Cola’s (and McDonald’s) sponsorship of the Olympics as an example of such irresponsibility and calls for radical legislation to bring this kind of thing to an end. The Academy is not alone. Many other voices are now being heard to challenge big brands – Coca-Cola is just one example – on a fundamental basis: the morality of their product or business model. In some cases the reason for the challenge is obvious – we all understand why tobacco companies are under fire. Others sit somewhere along a continuum: oil and gas, mining, banks and financial services, food and drinks, automobiles, telecommunications, and so on. But the common factor is this: businesses, even some that have been greatly admired, are increasingly being challenged by politicians, thought-leaders and, significantly, the general public, to answer the question, “is your product, and/or business model, and your marketing of it, morally correct?”

The traditional response from most brand owners and marketing experts is to dismiss this as a lazy complaint. Accusations are quickly countered with evidence and claims that the things they stand accused of are untrue: that they already do act responsibly, that they already are more safe/healthy/morally sound, and that there already is sufficient legislation and control in place. Furthermore, they talk about big brands’ role in stimulating the economy, in directly supporting programs of social welfare, and in funding initiatives (such as the Olympics) to the extent that they might not otherwise exist. They point their critics to reports that back this up, such as Corporate Responsibility Magazine’s newly published ranking of the 100 Best Corporate Citizens, 2012. It puts Coca-Cola in 14th spot, along with, for example, Altria Group in 15th, and Dow Chemicals in 34th, based on an analysis of 320 data points over seven categories of consideration for how they add benefit to society. It’s a kind of offset equation: even if some things are unavoidably not ideal, there are other positive things that must be taken into account. The brands argue the big-picture perspective – as I have, in these pages previously – that anyone who believes in a free-market economy and wants to uphold the social values of choice, fair value and life-enhancing progress must, logically, accept the need for big business to pursue its commercial aims and for brands and marketing to operate liberally: without this, the quality of life that we deserve can’t exist. They shudder at the lack of realism and the naivety in the critics’ arguments. “Witness the real world”, the brands
say. “We’re doing good things. We’re not the problem, we’re the solution. You’re way out of touch.” Coca-Cola believe this so much that they have just announced that they intend to formally measure and report on the societal impact that their marketing investments make.

What all of this proves is that to position the debate about brands and marketing as a choice between right and wrong is a false dichotomy. But that doesn’t mean – as many brand owners would have it – that the debate is not valuable to have. On the contrary, it is essential.

Another report was published last month. This one from the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, set up by David Cameron, which examines the UK riots of the summer of 2011. On the surface it appears to be yet another anti-brand statement, identifying “excessive marketing” by consumer brands as a factor behind the unrest. But actually, further in, the report was rather more considered. It points out that it is not blaming big business but calls for new partnerships between business, government and society to resolve issues that relate to the imbalance between what people are driven to desire and what they have the wherewithal to acquire. Furthermore, it suggests that the creative industries that support big businesses, i.e. advertising agencies, brand consultancies and design businesses (like my own), ought to consider applying their talent to supporting communities and social issues in other (non-chargeable) ways. 

This report is absolutely correct. The fairer future that most reasonable people desire is not going to be shaped by legislation and the banning of certain marketing and brands (unless the evidence for this is unambiguously conclusive). But neither will it be shaped by big business swearing blind allegiance to its own codes of past practice. What is required now is a new, more intelligent and creative approach to partnerships between business and society. It is time for critics – including The Academy of Royal Medical Colleges and some of the world’s more argumentative journalists – to indulge in rather less blanket brand-bashing and drop the intellectually unsustainable habit of labelling all marketing as evil. Simultaneously, more business leaders need to avoid automatic denial every time such an issue is raised and open-mindedly embrace a broader dialogue about the true morality of their efforts and the social value they provide. They will need to think more creatively and tangentially about the scope and nature of their business activities and see value in delivering more than just short-term shareholder returns. It is pleasing to see a number of high-profile organisations already starting down this road.

Along the course of such creative partnerships, mutual agreements on what constitutes appropriate moral standards in business will be reached in more constructive and actionable ways. Society does need business to support its wellbeing and progress. And business must recognise that morality needs to become a Board-level issue, and should be placed at the heart of every carefully crafted brand.

First published on The Huffington Post Blog, 24 April 2012.