The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 1, no. 1, August 2007
Permission to republish to be sought from the family of Colin Morley c/o the Medinge Group
Demonstrating that your brand has a conscience is becoming more and more important as the population of the developed world has more of its basic needs met and starts to look for higher values. The brands in this book demonstrate the growing importance of ethical issues with the opportunities it gives to new challengers and the need for existing brands to develop new values.
But first, ‘Hang on a minute,’ you may say. ‘How can a brand have a conscience?
‘Surely brands are just devices used by corporations to market their goods and services? A brand is not a conscious being so how can it have a conscience?‘
Yes, ‘Brands with a Conscience’ is an attention-getting headline. And it also highlights one of the roles that brands now play beyond just telling you the functional characteristics of what you are buying.
A brand can be the symbolic glue that binds a group of people together in creating and delivering value to customers. The name, colours and design of the brand come to symbolize a deeper set of shared experiences, values and beliefs that build trust between the owners, managers, employees, suppliers, customers and the wider community.
So when you find yourself traveling past a McDonald’s or Wal-mart you have a pretty good idea of what to expect if you stop and go inside as a potential customer, employee, supplier or community representative. The owners, managers, employees, suppliers and others who have created and delivered the products and services that you will experience there have a common understanding of what they are providing that enables them to act together as an embodiment of the brand.
The brand does what is implied in the word we use to describe the organization—it makes one body or corporation out of a group of people and things. So you can hold the corporation or brand to account for its actions in different times and places, even though different people may have delivered the product or service each time on behalf of the brand.
As the twentieth century went on, corporations were seen to have a single mind as well as a body. It is now commonplace to think of corporations as having a “soul”, and beyond that lies the world of the corporate “spirit”. Ken Wilber describes the evolution of human consciousness through the levels of body, mind, soul and spirit in his book A Theory of Everything. Corporations and brands are evolving through the same levels of consciousness.
Most of the brands we use every day do not seem to be very concerned with ethics or morality. They may provide features that satisfy functional needs (e.g. food, taste, vitamins) and benefits that satisfy emotional needs (sustenance, pleasure, well-being). Features and benefits are provided within an ethical or moral framework that is dictated by the economic, legal and regulatory system in force. So for example, products have to be fit for their purpose and must not make untrue claims about their performance. Few major brands or corporations seek to extend the regulatory frameworks in their industries to make production more ethical or expensive.
That was all very well during the materialistic era of mass consumption that has driven the world economy over the last 30–50 years. Over this period, most people have been unconcerned with the ethics or morality of what they were buying. The only criterion for choice has been, ‘Does this brand do what I want it to do for me?’ Does it fulfil my needs? Does it keep me alive, make me more comfortable, give me pleasure or enhance the way other people perceive me? At the lower and middle range of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs there are few or no questions of conscience for brands or consumers.
Consumers who think this way look for value by considering the functional and emotional benefits of the product or service quality provided, versus the price charged and any inconvenience involved.
As the population has become more affluent and better educated, many people have satisfied the basic needs of survival, pleasure and esteem of others. New questions begin to arise that relate to the goodness or badness of what people buy.
• Were these shoes produced using slave labour?
• Does this food have organic ingredients that have been fairly traded?
• Are these packaging materials recycled and/or recyclable?
• Are the employees of this company fairly rewarded for their work?
• Does this company pollute the area where it manufactures its products?
Some of these questions are intertwined with the functional features of the product for the consumer. For example, people may prefer organic foods because they believe that pesticides are bad for them, regardless of the perceived environmental benefits. And some of these questions are driven by media and pressure groups that are hungry for scandal and bad news with which to create headlines. Some governments have responded to public and media pressure by setting up tribunals and committees to review issues of corporate behaviour and governance. Corporations have in turn banded together into trade associations to lobby governments and supra-national bodies to reduce or limit the regulatory pressure on their activities.
Some major corporations have discovered that questions like these can damage or even destroy them; regardless of how healthy the bottom line was before they were asked. Sunny Delight in the UK, McDonald’s, Arthur Andersen and Nike are just a few.
However caused the interest in these questions knocks on to how people perceive themselves and takes us higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy to ‘self-esteem’ and ‘self-actualization’. When you have a choice between having your needs met ethically or unethically for the same price then there is no need to challenge your self-perception as a good person by continuing with the unethical option.
So the question, ‘Does this brand have a conscience?’ has become more and more relevant for consumers, employees and investors.
As a result we have seen brands and corporations adopt CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility as a standard of operation. By auditing environmental and ethical impacts and specifying programmes to alleviate or eliminate negative impacts, CSR has helped to create a conscience in many organizations. Investors have discovered that companies that practice CSR often perform better on the stock market because corporate scandals are avoided and the quality of management improves.
Where CSR standards have been adopted by all the companies in an industry the costs and benefits involved have been common across those industries and all the brands have demonstrated a degree of conscience.
Real Brands of Conscience, however, are those that accept the challenge of leading their industries. They accept the short-term cost sacrifices (such as more expensive ingredients and production processes) because they use the communication power of their brand values to gain a long-term benefit by appealing to the new target audience of ethical consumers. Brands of Conscience make a leap of faith that customers who today are ethically unaware or uncaring will grow to adopt the brand values and place value on the conscience of the brand.
Many brands have CSR policies that underpin their operations and do not publicize their consciences for fear of being scrutinized more closely by people looking for violations of ethical business principles. These companies believe that the benefits to their reputation of publicising their CSR policies would be outweighed by negative publicity of their violations or by the extra costs that they perceive would be needed to eliminate their violations. High-profile brands like Nike and Coca-Cola now find it very difficult to shake off the campaigns by activists who target them continuously.
Brands of Conscience accept this challenge and communicate their policies widely so that critics can scrutinize them and they can learn further from the feedback. When they are targeted by activists they engage in dialogue and build a constructive dialogue which further changes policies and ultimately enhances the brand’s reputation.
So a brand with a conscience is explicitly making moral or ethical conduct part of its values and positioning in the marketplace. It is making an appeal to its consumers’ sense of responsibility for right and wrong.
Only at level 6 do people feel ethical issues of conscience personally and fundamentally as they ‘sacrifice self to fit in with the group now.’ These “Cultural Creatives” have emerged in the last 30 years as a major group, particularly in the USA, Scandinavia and the UK. This group has made issues of sexual, racial, and ability discrimination, as well as animal rights and environmental issues into important public concerns.
Ethics play an increasingly important role at higher levels. Level 7 sees people ‘express themselves with complete consideration for others’ while at level 8 people ‘sacrifice themselves to the planet’.
The insights provided by Spiral Dynamics apply to organizations and brands as well as individuals. At the 6th level, for example, the organization moves from a hierarchical structure to a more egalitarian feel with everybody contributing to decision making in a self-organizing fashion. It is interesting that many “ethical brands” are still associated with individual hierarchical entrepreneurs or figureheads (for example, Paul Newman, Anita Roddick, Richard Branson) rather than with a company culture or set of brand values held in common by the owners and employees of the brand. A great example of a company and brand founded on self-organizing egalitarian principles is the amazing story of the Visa credit card organization told by its founder Dee Hock in his book, The Birth of the Chaordic Age.
So to what extent will consumers use ethical considerations to discriminate between brands in the future? Indeed will brands be able to satisfy the needs of the Cultural Creatives who have often rejected brands altogether and chosen the equivalent of the local farmers’ market instead of the supermarket?
Here I believe we come back to one of the major roles of brands—to make the provision of a mass product or service more efficient by gaining economies of scale. The original motor cars of choice for the Cultural Creatives were basic, reliable, high quality products like Citroën 2CVs and Volkswagen Beetles. Lean production with minimal waste and based on consumer pull is becoming mainstream thinking in many factories. Brands that enable cheaper prices while expressing ethical values will have a major competitive advantage as populations move up the spiral.
Brands that have raised ethical considerations like Body Shop and Virgin have taken business from incumbent brands that woke up too slowly. So now the race is on between the established brands that need to evolve fast, and challenger brands that can reposition the incumbents as unethical dinosaurs. Both groups can be ‘Brands with a Conscience’.