September 01, 2016

Who really cares if brands are ethical?

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I can’t remember the last time I bought a product that wasn’t simultaneously Fairtrade, organic, sustainable and full of integrity. These are the buzzwords we use to justify our spending habits.

But what if consumers don’t actually care about ethical practices? What if, in fact, an expensive marketing campaign is all that’s needed to convince a customer that brands have ethical commitments?

We asked respondents across the UK:

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Is Kingsmill notorious for its ethical practices? Not really. As it happens, all four brands have nearly identical ethical practices. Hardly surprising, given that they’re all owned by the same parent company, Allied Bakeries.

Allied Bakeries has a fairly standard industry approach to ethical commitments, neither a villain nor a hero. They sign up to safe working conditions, pay living wages and claim to operate sustainable agricultural practices. All good things.

At the same time, Oxfam’sBehind the Brandscampaign – which aims to provide people who buy food and drink products with the information they need to hold companies to account for what happens in their supply chains – has found areas in which Associated British Foods, Allied Bakeries’ parent company, falls short. It scores a measly 3/10 in measuring its impact on small-scale farmers and fares equally badly in its commitment to supporting women.

Oxfam also notes that Associated British Foods struggles with transparency. It provides some information about where it sources its raw materials, but is not forthcoming on its suppliers and auditing. Yet 50.2% of our respondents presume that Kingsmill is a responsible business with ethical trading.

Big means blameless

Burgen, Allinson and Sunblest appear to have injected so little into marketing over the last few years that their campaigns barely register on the internet. But Kingsmill tells a different story, channeling £30m into campaigns since 2007.

A £14m TV advertising campaign in 2007 saw Kingsmill celebrate “real life and real families”, marking the start of a commitment to forging an emotional relationship with its consumers. In 2009, they built on this, spending £11m on three tongue-in-cheek TV adverts showing the modern family. This was topped off with a £6.3m logo redesign in 2015 to leave Kingsmill feeling “warmer and more accessible”, largely achieved by putting sunshine on its packaging.

In effect, what we’re seeing is that out of the four brands of bread, Kingsmill has become the most visible. And for consumers, visibility implies reliability. The bigger the brand, the more easily consumers presume – rather than verify – its codes of conduct.

Surviving scandal

To be fair to Kingsmill, while it enjoys an ethical appearance somewhat off of the back of its marketing campaigns, it does also operate generally acceptable ethical practices. But what about companies who have nurtured an ethical image despite their unethical practices? What happens when these malpractices are publicly exposed? As it turns out, very little. Consumer commitment does not appear to waiver.

In June 2016, we asked respondents across the UK:

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It’s not surprising that Volkswagen comes out top, having been plagued by revelations about their car emissions tests since 2015. But as an automaker, these disclosures didn’t shatter an ethical brand image that had been painstakingly nurtured: no one really expected a car manufacturer to be committed to sustainable practices.

The fact that just 12.4% of respondents associated Marks & Spencer with a corporate scandal is more interesting. Particularly since just ten days before this survey, Marks & Spencer made front-page news when their Chief Executive, Steve Rowe, forecast pay cuts for staff.

Within three days a petition to prevent these cuts had garnered 20,000 signatures online, the issue was subsequently raised in Parliament and cross-party MPs turned out to support a protest outside its flagship store in Marble Arch.

Yet our respondents didn’t register this. Could it have something to do with the fact that since 2010 Marks & Spencer has more than doubled its digital marketing budget, and formed an ever-closer relationship with consumers? Digital marketing now accounts for more than 25% of its total marketing budget.

This is not just a marketing campaign, this is an M&S marketing campaign. And it allows the company to shed negative publicity surrounding their ethical practices in a way that other companies can’t.

All publicity is good publicity

So, the good news is that for companies who have invested in crafting an ethical brand image, revelations of exploitation won’t alienate their customer base.

We asked respondents across the UK:

Have you ever boycotted a company following a corporate scandal?

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Almost 70% said No.

Sustainable practices are expensive. And what this data tells brands is that the expense may not be worth it.

With this kind of data, delivered quickly and anonymously, brands can better understand how customers actually operate, instead of how they tell you they operate. In this case, the findings offer a message that we at Attest are reluctant to convey: brands don’t need to be ethical.

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