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Brand Ethics

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This week in Global Brand Strategy, we looked at brand ethics – what they are, what they mean, are they just a load of crap, etc..


It caused a bit of consternation amongst my fellow students, and why not? It’s not exactly been a great time for ethical brand behaviour, what with the GFC and all.  Greed is good, unless it’s not part of your brand strategy, in which case it’s bad. Yep, we weren’t expecting a deregulated banking industry whose sole purpose is collecting money to go so horribly haywire.  What were we thinking?


Anyway, back to brand ethics. I think the reason people get their knickers in a knot about brand ethics is a combination of ‘when it goes wrong it goes horribly and publicly wrong’, and that when it does, it reminds us that by definition, a non-living entity can’t really have ethics, and we feel somewhat ‘deceived’. It’s as if we want our brands to be impervious, solid, and dependable.

Well, they only have themselves to blame, really. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘Stay on-message’ in the past year or two? Brands spend a lot of time simplifying and condensing who they are, what they are, and what they stand for, for the very reason as to communicate succinctly exactly those premises. Brands are a simplified versions of ourselves – almost caricatures in the way they’re designed, structured, and the way they communicate. They allow us to live out parts of our personality in a glossy, techicolour ‘dog-and-pony show’ style.


So when brands screw up, many of us feel personally affronted. We’ve ‘believed the hype’, we’re in many cases emotionally and socially invested in the brand – and because of their glossy, condensed hyper-selves – we feel especially let down.  I suspect that many people hold grudges against brands for longer than they do people, as I know myself I didn’t buy Nike until last year after the child labour scandal of the early 2000’s, and I still have in the forefront of my mind when I’m in the supermarket the Nestlé infant formula scandal of the 1980’s. It’s all a bit silly really, because at the root of every human endeavour – including organising ‘work’ under a ‘brand’ – is those pesky, fallible, and often ridiculous, humans.  Everything we do is a reflection of us, of who we are, and brands are no different.


Where the problem lies for many, is the notion that human ethics are ‘real’, and brand ethics are only a ‘construct’, an illusion created to sell more stuff. However, any group of people working together whether structured or organically come together under a framework of behaviour, of what’s expected, what’s acceptable, and what isn’t. Any group of people inherently has a code of conduct, a set of rules, a set of ethics. The only place where a brand differs, is that it’s ethics are quite implicit, and may only be applicable within their given sphere of influence, or even ‘selective’.  For example, if you’re Bushmaster Firearms, you’re all about ‘Defending freedom’, not ‘Arming the insane’ or ‘Helping third world despots since 1988′. If you’re McDonalds, you’re “Lovin’ It”, not “Cramming half a day’s calories into one meal”. 


Brands are therefore only a group of people working under a masthead, under a certain framework, with a certain goal. It’s no different to any other organisation, social group, or anywhere else really where two or more people get together and decide to act in a certain way. Where the real problem lies I believe, is when there is active deceit involved.

I posted in my Uni blog yesterday a post about a Japanese badminton racket brand Yonex and their propensity for ‘pseudo-science’ in generating world record smash speeds that can’t be duplicated on the court, and have made no difference whatsoever for sponsored players in world rankings. I’ve decided that I don’t really have a problem with this as the notion of ‘story telling’ is fundamental to the human condition, and that because there is no active deceit, if people believe the claims or believe it’s actual science then really they’re the one with the problem. Yonex isn’t lying, they’re just telling the story in a way that’s pro their business.

This ‘pandering to the human condition’, that is, taking advantage of the fact that we’re all a bit dazed and confused and emotionally stilted, is still for me a bit of a grey area. I think as a brand it’s hard not to strike a chord with people’s emotions, to tell a story, to speak of dreams, but at some point you’re not really helping to raise the standards and then there is larger picture ethical questions at hand. For example, it didn’t do McDonalds any favours in the ‘McLibel’ case to argue that Coke had health benefits because it ‘contained water’. Brands are dogmatic, single-minded beasts, so it’s really up to consumers to get them to move on the big picture stuff, but there should also be a certain level of responsibility shown by brands that they are dynamic and can change with the times if there is something greater at stake, like people’s health. Where this becomes a problem and counter-productive to society at large is when brands become so ‘egotistical’ and dogmatic that even when their own science says their product is killing people, they ignore it – such as with James-Hardy with asbestos and the tobacco industry.


To that I either say, change your business model, change your brand, or die. A brand is simply an target to throw money at at the end of the day, so if it ever gets to the point where things no longer do what they say on the tin, then it’s ‘adios muchacho!’ and time to move on.


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