What’s a brand got to do to be ethical these days?

Vicky Bullen

The rise of the conscious consumer has been increasing rapidly over the past years, forcing brands to re-evaluate their ethical stance and to incorporate purpose and CSR into their approach. But is this now enough in the modern day to gain consumers’ trust?

Even in the past few weeks, we’ve seen brands like The Body Shop and The Co-operative Bank, who were seen as the epitome of ethical behaviour in business, reporting poor business performances. Perhaps just having ethical credentials is no longer enough?

Over the past 10 years, The Body Shop has slowly eroded its brand identity as competitors such as Lush and Neal’s Yard gain market share, along with the trust of consumers. In a world of increased transparency and feedback, brands need to have a clearer purpose than ever. Consumers don’t just need to believe in the end result of your product or service, they need to engage with why you’re doing it in the first place. This is even more of a necessity with millennials as it is well known that this generation respects strong attitudes and thinks that even brands with a purpose need to step-up and take an activist’s approach.

Lush is a great example of a brand that is getting its point of view heard as well as winning the hearts of conscious consumers. One of its more recent campaigns was supporting same-sex couples on Valentine’s Day, using its social media platforms to drive interest and raise awareness. It also used a similar approach to support the Women’s March. Being direct and transparent in its views creates trust – and branding is first and foremost about trust.

However, it is easy for brands to overstep the mark – being too vocal can actually turn consumers against the brand. Arguably Airbnb did this in its protest about taxes in San Francisco (though I doubt much long term damage was done). And even though studies have shown that consumers are more likely to buy into brands that don’t sit on the fence, some brands are still nervous of highlighting and promoting their views in case of just such backlashes. In my experience, however, nervousness does not a strong brand make….

In this ever-changing world, where brands’ power to influence increases day by day, it is crucial for them to stand up and be a voice for those that don’t have the same platform. Consumers will continue to become more sophisticated, demanding and informed, so brands are going to be under even more scrutiny. Already around 75% of millennials research the behaviour and policies of the brands they are about to buy from before they commit.

So, brands must be ethical and transparent, but above all, whatever their stance, they have to mean what they say – and act on it.

Vicky Bullen is chief executive of Coley Porter Bell

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.