Imagine a time when people only care about real quality, whatever the product. A time when people only eat local, seasonal, organic produce, supplied in recyclable paper bags by caring, local (but still fiercely entrepreneurial) organisations with their eyes unashamedly focused on the bottom line. A time when all goods are marketed not on the premise of how big the parent company is, but on the total and measured provenance of the raw ingredients. This time isn’t some utopian future – it’s the 19th century.
The change that pushed the world onto what most people now agree is a destructive and downward marketing cycle is probably the fault of our advertising forefathers. And it didn’t just start with the 1960s advertising boom. It’s been happening for ages...
NW Ayer & Son was the first advertising agency in the United States. As far back as 1869, it was knocking out sophisticated marketing campaigns, directly aimed at creating an atmosphere of mass-market consumerism.
The agency developed slogans such as: “When it rains it pours,” coined in 1912 to advertise Morton Salt, “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” dreamed up for Camel cigarettes just after the first world war, and: “A diamond is forever,” a 1948 campaign for De Beers aimed at post-war consumers... Encouraging the consumption of what could be perceived as ethically dodgy products hasn’t just happened overnight.
According to the recently published Ethical Consumption Report, UK consumers spent £25billion on ethical goods and services in 2004, an increase of 15 per cent on the previous year. This ethical enthusiasm has spawned a number of ‘wannabe’ ethical brands – mainstream and successful but not previously noted for their outstanding commitment to ethically sound practice. So is everyone simply jumping on the ethical marketing bandwagon?
There are millions of case studies for fiercely ethical (or so they claim) companies, from Lush Cosmetics and Howies to the Co-op Bank... but let’s remain Innocent. There’s a reason both greenies and hard-nosed business sceptics keep banging on about this firm.
Innocent made its name producing drinks made from whole fruit rather than fruit concentrate and water, like many of its rivals. Since its creation in 1998, Innocent’s top-line revenue has increased from £300,000 to £37million in 2005, growing 130 per cent in the past 12 months alone. The company, set up by three ‘yoony’ friends, was the third-fastest growing unquoted company in the UK in 2005 [FastTrack 100].
Are brands that are truly ethical outstripping growth in their sector? And if Innocent enlists the necessary mass-market marketing expertise to see the brand go global, will it be forced to dilute the tone of voice and the fun, ethical personality of the brand?
Another of the UK’s successful ethical branding stories has been the rise and rise of Green & Black’s Organic Chocolate. However, this rise hasn’t been entirely smooth.
Since 2005, the giant conglomerate Cadbury Schweppes has owned the company. So great was the disquiet among the Green & Black’s customer base at this news that chief executive William Kendall had to post a notice on the company website to ease the discontent. He argued that Cadbury was checked out “pretty thoroughly” and scored well on ethical issues.
“We do not have time for prejudice at Green & Black’s and this includes a prejudice that all big companies and the people who work for them are bad,” he said. “The Green & Black’s revolution will carry on as before. [Cadbury Schweppes] is a brand with depth and roots.” So there!
The growth of ‘cause-related marketing’ is flourishing. Just last month, M&S began its pursuit of the ‘green pound’, revealing an ambitious, £200m eco-plan to become carbon neutral over the next five years.
Chief executive Stuart Rose said: “While M&S will continue to sell great quality, stylish and innovative products, our customers, employees and shareholders now expect us to take bold steps and do business differently and responsibly.”
M&S isn’t alone in shouting about going green. All the supermarkets are doing it. Tesco plans to invest £100m in environmental funds to develop renewable energy. Sounds a lot, but looking at the company’s multi-billion-pound profits, it’s a tiny drop in a massive ocean.
Of course, the king of ethical spin – the right-on, woolly-jumpered environmental marketeer and Bill Clinton’s best mate Richard Branson – is well ahead of the game. He’s donating all of Virgin Atlantic’s future profits to research for renewable energy. Is he just doing this because he’s bowing to the inevitable, or is he simply fishing for a knighthood? Oh, I forgot, he’s got one already.
There are exceptions, but you can’t help but wonder if going green is all cynical company spin designed to placate right-on shareholders. Is it a passing fad or real evidence that brands are changing how they interact with the world?
Either way, it’ll make a huge impact on tone-of-voice and brand personality, especially as the consumer becomes increasingly time-poor and cash-rich and continues to suffer from choice fatigue. Will the most ethical product simply become the most obvious choice?
This debate triggers a series of interesting questions. Is ethical marketing more suitable to smaller companies? Do organisations struggle to sustain their ethical values the larger they become? Or as big brands work on their ethical reputation will they soon be at the top of the ethical marketing tree? If you look at the USA’s top 100 corporate and social responsibility companies, which mostly contains mega-brands, it could be argued they already are.
After all, the likes of Gap, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Nike have had to spend years and tens of millions of dollars recruiting the brightest ethical marketing brains. They’ve had to greatly change their supply chain processes to counteract consumer criticism. In the next few years, those and other global brands which were once seen as the baddies will be further reversing the trend. Those reviled will soon be revered.
It may be that in the future the effort to go green will be most difficult for smaller businesses. After all, it’s probably easier for big companies to influence suppliers. If you’re a company ordering two million pairs of jeans and you ask the supplier to use a recyclable pallet and not shrink wrap, the supplier is likely to agree.
If there’s consistent demand for eco-shopping, then big businesses will be able to call the shots and respond. And if this happens will it be smaller organisations (the champions of the whole scene at the moment) who are left floundering? And now that big business has cottoned on to the profitable possibilities of taking an ethical stance, will change happen as quickly?
Screw The Planet is a talk debating ALL of the above at The Lighthouse in Glasgow on 13 February. Email screwtheplanet@ thehubagency.com for details