Modern Marketing

With Apple, Google and Starbucks under fire, can FairTax become a marketing standard?

By Lewis Blackwell |

June 7, 2013 | 7 min read

What a fascinating time we live in for mega-brand management. It's the only game to watch and we can all join in. As Google, Amazon, Starbucks and Apple duck and weave around attacks on their aggressive tax avoidance structures, so an opportunity is developing for a new movement in global marketing, not to mention in international cooperation.

Tax protestors make their feelings known outside a Starbucks

Tax protestors make their feelings known outside a Starbucks

As with the horsemeat scandal of a month or two back, which delivered collateral damage to various brands and prompted Tesco to take out full-page ads promising that they were really sorry and were changing in so many ways, the tax avoidance tale takes us into another dark corner of big business cross-border operations.

As we look on to this unfolding disaster of corporate mis-talk, with executives defending the seemingly indefensible, so there is opportunity for all of us to engage. We don't have to passively watch this drama play out. We don't have to wait for the G8 summit to come out with fine words and no actions. This is an opportunity for innovation in how competitors and the community in general hold these organisations to account.

It's a watershed moment. Can collective communication strategies harness our sense of decency and the power of widespread embarrassment in order to drive business and social change?

If this sounds a bit fanciful, well consider how the FairTrade and organic movements work. They are effectively a community watchdog on products, building new premium categories that fund a raising of values and driving of change in food and other supply chains. They're fine examples of free market forces and consumer democracy working together.

So with tax avoidance, first we have to agree our values. What's acceptable and what's not. Companies that seem to pay their dues need to be recognised as a new category of fair trade and those that shirk their contribution must be outcast. When we find ourselves offended, undermined and corrupted by these bad businesses – which the general outcry suggests is the case – then we need to act. We must put our voices and actions together and protest with our amending own spending and by raising awareness of the issues. We need to work together to threaten and cut funding for brands of whose actions we disapprove. It should not be that complex a thing to do. It's happening already at an individual level and just needs joining up – across the planet.

With the tax avoidance revelations, we are being invited to consider whether these massive brands are up to no good or just doing what any sensible business would do. Our media and our politicians seem pretty clear that there is a serious case to answer. As individuals and rival organisations, there is no room for staying silent as we are all taking more of the tax burden thanks to these businesses not paying what is seen as a fair share. This damages us as individuals, as societies, and as business people. Enterprises that operate with these arrangements have a huge advantage over those who shackle themselves to paying a much greater percentage of revenues in tax. The Amazons and Googles and their ilk crush their competitors with the benefit of funds that we rather helped build hospitals, etc.

Despite a great many of us being regular customers and even brand evangelists of these companies, it's hard to find people standing up for the tax avoidance. We love it when some faceless VP gets the Google 'don't be evil' motto shoved back into one of his orifices by a select committee. It seems some of us already step past Starbucks and walk along the street to buy our coffee at Costa instead. Not just because we prefer their brew but because we prefer their way of doing business.

If public disgust grows and links up, then the businesses at the centre of the controversy face the prospect of going from being acceptable corporate citizens to having all the positive value-association of drug-dealing pimps. There may still be keen demand for their products and services at present, but nobody likes what they are doing underneath it all and nobody would be upset if they were banged up for years or even shot in a dark alley. Metaphorically speaking. We just need to make that happen, metaphorically speaking. That means, in reality, damaging their brand image so much that buyers head elsewhere.

So how does this message get promoted from major opprobrium to general boycott of tax-avoiding brands? The label for such a movement already exists in the USA, I would suggest – the FairTax moniker, given to an innovative proposal of having one consumer tax replace all others. That idea is such a leap in fiscal policy, across federal and state and party divides, that it is not going to happen any time soon. However, the neat name could be picked up as a marketing tool for a consumer movement. Like FairTrade, an alliance of interests need to set standards and fund a central body that will append FairTax designation to companies that pay their dues in transparent and reasonable ways. Those companies can market themselves with the tag, just like FairTrade brands do, and they can point out the defects of competitors that don't carry it. Businesses that don't earn a FairTax rating need to be seen as pariah enterprises, unwilling to do their bit, abusive of society and fit only to be shunned.

It will take time, but if buying from a noted exploiter of tax loopholes came to be seen as a highly antisocial act, then brands would have to pay attention.

Marketing has built these controversial companies that seem more powerful than governments – it can also bring them back into line.

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