Know your negatives

Know your negatives

As marketers, we’re trained to focus on benefits from a tender age.

After more than 25 years in the industry, I still find myself translating features into advantages for customers most days. It’s almost a reflex, isn’t it? But there’s a new challenge afoot. One our profession needs to rise to, and urgently.

Who’s criticising you?

Customers are seeing through the benefits of brands and calling out the hazards. From palm oil to packaging, obesity to slavery, the public is holding brands to account for the harm they do.

They’re not just moaning about it to a few friends over a pint. They’re sharing their frustration with the harm your brand does online. Humans have never before had the ability to publish, in seconds, to thousands of people, for free, like they do today. Among the LOLcats, emojis and satirical gifs lurk thousands of posts about the harm products and services do to nature and society. Some of those posts are about your brand. If you’re analysing sentiment in social mentions, you’re probably picking it up.

The sleeping giant of ethical demand

Right now, there’s still disconnect between the concerns most people have about business responsibility and their willingness to keep buying from those same businesses. Internationally, Nielsen found 66% of respondents last year not only wanted to buy from companies with a positive social and environmental impact, but also that they would pay more to do so. The percentage willing to pay more has risen from 55% in 2014 and 50% in 2013, however generally most people keep buying conventional brands. Research and observation suggest there is a complex mix limiting the speed of change in consumer behaviour – a cocktail of apathy, benefit of the doubt, low specific knowledge and difficult access to alternatives. Mass demand for ethical products and services is definitely there but often latent; a sleeping giant. 

On occasion, a dramatic shift in consumers’ buying patterns happens because of their sudden awareness of the harm – as Chevron, Burberry and now Volkswagen have discovered. However, new brands can overcome some of the pricing, distribution, image or other difficulties shoppers had choosing a more responsible alternative. A number of the rock star sustainable brands, such as Innocent drinks in the UK (now 90% owned by Coca-Cola) and Method laundry products in the US, overcame multiple barriers at the same time. By producing attractive ‘eco’ brands at standard prices available in mainstream shops, they made themselves easy, attractive and affordable to buy. In doing so, they present a compelling alternative to the status quo, inspiring people to change their buying in large numbers. This takes share from the incumbent market leaders, translating the harm they continue to create into lost sales.

What’s the harm?

As a speaker on marketing and sustainability, I once asked participants at an advertising conference to discuss in small groups their brands’ negative impacts. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a big room go so rapidly from nervous silence to noisy debate. In some groups it was an uncomfortable process. In one I heard later, a senior chap refused to let his group discuss their brand’s harm at all. But for most participants it was an exciting, refreshing and even cathartic experience. It provoked new thinking and creative energy. It brought the marketers a little closer to their customers and, I suspect, made us all feel that little bit more human. 

It’s a discussion we don’t have nearly often enough.  And we’re out of time for just talking.

What’s the hurry?

December’s climate change deal in Paris has set a new urgency for countries and companies to act. It’s also given consumers worldwide a sharper expectation of action. As an industry, we’ve run out of time to look the other way. Marketers need to nail the negatives of their brands, and fast, or else our customers will start buying from brands that do less harm or even cut back buying all together.  

Kath Dewar (FCIM) is the MD of GoodSense Learning, where she is also a course director. 

Kath Dewar Managing Director GoodSense Learning
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