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Can Brands Really Do the Right Thing All the Time?

Trends and Insight 135 Add to collection

An Advertising Week Europe panel featuring the IPA’s Paul Bainsfair, MediaCom’s Sue Unerman, Reach Plc’s Andrew Tenzer and BBH’s Robert Meiklejohn discussed some major considerations of ethics in advertising, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves

Can Brands Really Do the Right Thing All the Time?

Depending on how much time you spend online, you may well feel that in today’s world, everyone must take a firm stance either one way or another on every hot-button issue. Juxtapose that sense with the trend for every brand to have to find itself a purpose in the world (beyond its financial ones) and it seems clear that marketers have some tricky decisions to make.

That was the framing of the discussion ‘The Only Way Is Ethics?’ at Advertising Week Europe this Wednesday. Chaired by IPA director general Paul Painsfair, who conjured recent controversies like Spotify’s involvement with Joe Rogan despite his opinion-splitting views, he suggested that for many brands, it seems you “can’t do right for doing wrong.”

On the other hand, not taking a stance risks squandering an opportunity to prove to consumers that you care as much as they do about the most important issues facing humanity today. “You can’t just be bland when it comes to ethics these days,” said Paul.

Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer at MediaCom, reminded the audience, however, that purpose-driven brands are nothing new. She pointed to Quaker Oats, founded in 1877 on Quaker values, or Lloyds Bank and Cadbury’s. From those to more recent business successes such as Eve mattresses, almost every brand has an ideal of the world they want to help create – even if it’s simply a world where people sleep better.

She also suggested that brands are made up of people. And we are all healthier and happier if we can combine our personal values with what we do at work.

Plucking one lesson from her book ‘Belonging: The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work’, she noted that there is a clear generational divide in how willing people are to compromise their values. And that if the younger generations are less compromising, brands with purpose at their heart will only continue to proliferate and succeed.

Director of market insight and brand strategy at Reach Plc Andrew Tenzer provided the conversation with more context, conjuring the UK cost of living crisis, and noted a “disconnect between what people in our industry think and what they project onto people out there in the real world.” Lofty and abstract purpose, he suggested, might not be the primary concerns of people struggling to heat their homes and feed their families.

Considering the UK just hit the highest inflation rate for 40 years and over 50% of bill payers are struggling to pay their bills, Britons have problems to consider that seem much more pertinent and urgent than saving rainforests thousands of miles away. “I think the idea that kind of people are sitting at home thinking about what a brand thinks or believes on a certain issue is just not true,” suggested Andrew.

He also added that taking a stand on an issue is not necessarily the most effective way of selling, offering the thought that advertising is “one of the most elitist professions in the UK,” with 70% of people working in advertising and marketing having grown up in a household where the highest income earner was from a social grade A or B – compared to 29% of the UK population. “That means that essentially we see things, experience and interpret the world differently to a lot of the audience that we're trying to connect with.”

BBH strategy director Robert Meiklejohn came to the defence of purposeful advertising through his personal experience working on British banking brand Barclays, for whom purpose has been proven to pay off. With the caveat that there’s more nuance than saying purpose works for all brands at all times, Robert asserted that for Barlcays, in that market and moment, purpose has driven effectiveness.

Banking advertising has drastically changed since the 2009 financial crash and 2012 LIBOR scandal – two events that negatively impacted public trust in brands like Barclays. After that hit to the category’s reputation, Robert suggested that working with BBH to find an established social purpose helped the brand to build a new tone. Its Money Mentors and Digital Eagles programmes both worked with communities to fill gaps in education.

“They were established to build trust,” said Robert. “Over time, as we started talking about them more and more, people started experiencing them not just through our broadcast ads, but actually in the real world. They have massively improved Barclays trust scores and that has impacted the business positively as well.”

It’s not just consumers who Sue noted are now demanding the brands they buy from are following through on ethics they believe in. She added that she’s been to conferences where these pressures are now clearly coming from stakeholder management and investors, who evaluate brands in terms of their purpose

We all know that pursuing purpose needs to be done right. Andrew highlighted a what-not-to-do example from Heineken in the form of a campaign about donating money to help seals. “I'm not sure many people are going down the offy thinking ‘I'm going to buy that brand of beer that donates money to seals’,” he jokes. Adding that while it’s a perfectly noble cause, “it just feels very greenwashing. In terms of the approach, it probably isn't the most effective way to grow memory structures and grow their brands in the category.”

The connection to the brand seems weak and that is the problem, not the good cause in itself. Robert praised Volvo’s ‘The Ultimate Safety Test’ as one campaign that makes total sense for the brand. “Firstly, it's actually doing purpose in a fun way, which is sort of unusual. It's poking a little bit of fun but then it's absolutely tying back to that core thing about safety. And one of the biggest safety issues now facing us all is not actually airbags and crumple zones and stuff which is what they would traditionally talk about, but climate change”

Finally the panel turned to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Is that something brands abroad should engage with, asked Paul. Sue answered assuredly: “There's a really strong thread in all of this, which is that it's not just about a presentation that you put up, it's not just about an IPA paper that you write. It's about the energy that every single one of your employees brings into the office. Our slogan at MediaCom is ‘people first’, but undeniably we have to put people first and think through how people are feeling and reacting to this.”

Moral ambiguity is difficult for brands to navigate, admitted Andrew. But on the subject of Ukraine it seems unambiguous, he noted. For the majority of the world, it seems that Russia’s invasion is condemned. “Sometimes there is just the right thing to do.”

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IPA, Wed, 18 May 2022 15:24:44 GMT