Don’t brand your business with the label ‘ethical’

Don’t brand your business with the label ‘ethical’

Powered by article titled “Don’t brand your business with the label ‘ethical'” was written by Oliver Balch, for on Thursday 26th March 2015 09.30 UTC

Handmade cosmetics retailer Lush is proud of the fact it does zero advertising. It’s also pretty chuffed about its ethics. It has every right to be, having won an Observer Ethical Award last year. The Dorset-based brand shuns animal testing, caps executive pay, donates to anti-fracking groups, pays its African suppliers a fair price and much else besides.

Would you know though? Not from its minimal packaging, that’s for sure. Lush shuns the word “ethical” and its synonyms (think “eco”, “sustainable”, “responsible”, “good” and so on). Instead, its marketing is all about laying its products bare. That way, says Hilary Jones, the company’s ethics director, there’s “an obvious dialogue that begs to be had between us and our customers”.

On the face of it, Lush appears to be missing a trick. All the evidence suggests that consumers are increasingly concerned about the ethics behind what they buy. The latest Trust Barometer from public relations firm Edelman places ethics and integrity top of 16 specific categories that engender the public trust.

Just because consumers want their brands to be ethical, however, doesn’t mean they want brands banging on about it non-stop. No one much likes the person who boasts relentlessly about their charity work or moral good conduct. When brands do it, the effect is just the same.

Explicit ethical branding has other negative connotations too. First, there’s the quality question: will this eco-branded washing powder get my clothes whiter than white? Some shoppers will doubt it. Similarly, on price, there’s a widespread (and usually justified) perception that “ethical” means expensive. A niche shopper may pay a premium for their principles, but the majority will not.

“In practice, most consumers assess their needs first, then how much they can afford to get those needs met,” says Brian Ahearne, director at London-based public relations agency Parker, Wayne & Kent. “Sometimes ethics will come into the mix, but that’s pretty rare.”

It’s not just consumers who are wary about ethical branding. The branding people are too. The fear is that by boasting about their ethics, brands will be setting themselves up for a fall. Take the Co-operative Bank, says Ahearne. For a long time it was the ethical poster-child, but news of its financial woes and drug-taking management were met with an eviscerating, almost gleeful backlash.

“As I always tell my clients, there’s only six inches between a slap on the back and a kick up the arse,” says Ahearne. Or, to put it another way, if you put your head above the parapet expect someone to take a pot shot.

Perhaps finding a less toxic term than “ethical” is the answer? Giles Gibbons, co-founder of specialist communications firm Good Business, is cautious about name games. Terms that resonate with ethical shoppers rarely do so with mainstream consumers. “Fair trade” represents a rare example, he suggests, but even that carries a “worthy” (read, boring) image for some.

Actions, not words

For Gibbons, words are not the most important factor; actions are what count. “Too many brands are trying to get the green or ethical label, rather than genuinely being a good business and getting the benefit from that,” he says.

He admits that most marketing professionals gulp at this message. Branding is their home turf, not “being” – but there’s no way round it. If ethical marketing is going to work, the ethics have to come first and the marketing second. Therein lies authenticity. Anything else smells, well, fishy.

Cheryl Giovannoni, chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather, concurs. Take Starbucks, she says. The Seattle coffee chain has umpteen certificates to say it’s sustainable. So does she believe it when it claims to source its beans ethically? “Not when I question whether they pay the right amount of tax in the UK,” she argues.

That doesn’t mean brands should keep schtum. No one is a saint – not even Lush. What the public expects isn’t ethical perfection; it’s clarity on what a brand stands for, and transparency on how its ethics are staking up.

Sarah Pinch, president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, gives the example of Devon-based food box delivery brand Riverford. The company grew so quickly that it had to go back on an initial pledge to buy only UK-grown produce, she says. Now it imports veg from France in spring, although it commits to zero airfreight.

For Pinch, such transparency only adds to her trust in the brand – it doesn’t detract from it: “Consumers and the media are now much more adept at testing ethical claims, so the need for greater accountability and openness is absolutely vital. PR professionals have a responsibility to tell their clients: we can’t say Produce A is 100% ethical. What we can say is that we are taking every effort to meet this and this ethical standard and here’s the proof.”

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