In the wake of a global survey that found 50% of consumers are willing to reward companies that give back to society, our Head of Planning, David Howard, considers the growing benefits of social responsibility.
In the not-so-distant past, consumers were content for big brands to make huge profits with no questions asked. But today, we demand to know more about what brands get up to behind the scenes. What are their ethics? Who supplies them? How do they look after those suppliers and how will they look after us?
Brands are putting ethics at the heart of their business. TSB Bank, Britain’s first new major high street bank for decades, has launched this autumn with an ad campaign setting out its ethical values. The ads make bold statements about TSB’s commitment to building communities and helping ordinary people. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola surprised us all this summer with its ‘Live like Grandpa’ ad promoting healthy living. This dash for social responsibility owes much to ethical pioneers such as Anita Roddick and The Body Shop, who made the idea of “conscious capitalism” relevant to the modern world.
You only need to look at the recent Nielsen global survey on brand ethics to see how social responsibility has come. The survey found that favourable consumer sentiment towards socially responsible companies is growing. Half of global consumers are willing to reward companies that give something back to society. Some 43% of the 29,000 people surveyed have actually carried through and spent more on products and services from companies that have given back to society or the environment in some way.
Brands such as Toms, Cafédirect and Whole Foods have built strong ethics into their very business models to impressive effect. Toms donate a pair of shoes to those in need for every pair that’s sold, and Cafédirect reportedly invest a massive 50% of their profits back into strengthening their growers’ businesses. They’re proof that good ethics and good business really can go hand in hand. And it’s not just small brands that are taking the ethical road. Retail giants such as M&S, The Co-operative and Waitrose are fine examples of brands that strike a balance between big business and social responsibility.
But it should be remembered that the bigger a brand gets, the more public scepticism its activities invite. When McDonald’s began advertising that their burgers were made from 100% beef, few people believed them. Instead, an urban myth circulated that they were buying their meat from a company called ‘100% Beef’ which meant that they were able to include the term in their ads. Since then, McDonald’s have spent millions on UK advertising to hit home the message that their food is ethically-sourced from British and Irish farms. While they’ll never shake off all urban myths, making a point of their improved ethics may go some way towards quelling them.
Coca-Cola is also making a concerted attempt to tip the scales in favour of social responsibility. Although it’s a constant battle to shift the stigma created by stories such as the New Zealand woman who died from drinking excessive amounts of the product, their ‘Share A Coke’ campaign earlier this year proved to be a roaring success in terms of brand sentiment. Their ‘Small World Machines’ initiative – which attempted to break down barriers between India and Pakistan by making people in Delhi and Lahore work together to gain a can of Coke – was inspired. It was one of many initiatives that displayed Coca-Cola’s dedication to making the world a happier place. Subsequently, their buzz ranking, recommendation score and reputation score all went shooting up in the month following the launch of the campaign.
Meanwhile, the issues of health and ethics have become so important that a large number of heavyweight FMCG brands have now signed up to the Department of Health’s Responsibility Deal. This is an initiative that attempts to take action on high calorie products and improve public health. The deal has led to Sprite cutting calories by 30%, while Subway spent around 65% of its promotional budget on healthier eating campaigns last year.
What remains to be seen is whether this is part of a bigger picture for those who have signed up, or whether it’s a box-ticking exercise that offsets less ethical practices in other parts of the business.
Regardless of the motivations, the expectation for brands to contribute to society is undoubtedly growing. Brands will either embed an ethical dimension into their business model or make on-going commitments explained through brand philosophy advertising. Either way, demonstrating a brand’s social responsibility won’t be an option in years to come, it’ll be a necessity.