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Marketing Ethics

Five ways brands can respond to rising ethical demands

By Max Kalis, Senior stragegist

Start Design


The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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September 6, 2018 | 5 min read

A recent survey from EY found that while only 5% of those over the age of 55 would be willing to pay an extra 20% or more for an ethically sourced product, 34% of those aged 16-24 and 32% of those aged 25-34 would pay the premium.

A road sign in the desert, pointing in two opposite directions.

Which way to go, as ethical demands on brands increase?

This evidence suggests it could be lucrative to recalibrate your brand ethic, to align with the rising tide of expectations and actions. In order to help you consider how to position your ethical stance, we’ve identified 5 paths for your to consider.

Unsung Heroes

You’re doing some good things but nobody knows...

For companies whose brand principles and products are aligned with higher ethical standards, it’s a straightforward opportunity to promote these activities. For most brands, however, there will be some elements of operations that straddle the ethical line. Marks and Spencer for example may have adopted the living wage in London but its packaging practices remain questionable.

Next step: Communicate the positive things the brand is doing and start a conversation with customers on the issues it has yet to tackle.

Nothing to Hiders

You’re not doing much of merit but you’re not doing anything bad either…

An alternative to the promotion of principles aligned to higher ethical standards is to claim there is nothing to hide. These campaigns highlight transparency. Absolut Vodka has used frank nudity to supports its case. Provided there are no grounds for being caught out this approach is effective in answering the sceptical consumer’s doubt, irrelevant of specific ethical charges.

Next step: State the absence of harm. Even not doing anything wrong is an asset.

Fast Followers

You’re willing to make some small operational changes…

If the brand’s activities are questionable in terms of higher standards, it has a choice to make on whether or not to change the operation. McDonald's recently adopted a ban on plastic straws after the proposal of regulation of single use plastics. This is a combination of being proactive and reactive which could be coined as ‘preactive’, acting just a fraction ahead of the pack which gains an optimum balance of PR and delaying costly change.

Next Step: Just-in-time participation, but only if you’re willing to risk not getting the timing right and losing the PR opportunity.

Landscape Shapers

You’re actively involved in driving the cultural changes driving ethical shifts…

A brand can go beyond its core proposition to help accelerate the changes in the world towards higher standards, bringing consumer principles up to its own and positioning itself at the head of the charge. WeTransfer has developed a new internet, in order to protect the US government’s ending of net neutrality in April 2018. Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic online is treated equally as it travels across the physical manifestation of the web. The end of the ban heralds an era of premium interest services for some, flying in the face of the wishes of internet founder Tim Berners Lee.

Next steps: Commit to long term ethical trends that are aligned with your company’s long term activities. Driving the shifts helps to gain benefits sustainably.


You’re never going to align with rising ethical standards or the expected lifespan of the brand/product is relatively short...

There is a counter-position to following or pushing the rise in ethical standards, appealing to those who do not subscribe to those views. Oasis (the drink) recently ran a campaign to mock brands for their earnest purpose driven claims with a pretend launch of a double-ended sharing bottle. This is suggesting that for some, the brand-wagon often rings hollow when declaring its loftier principles.

Next Step: Aim communication across the ethical grain.

In summary, there is a significant shift in appreciation of ethics. For any adjustment to your brand ethic to be successful your projected values will need to be true to the core business (which could require a change of its direction), to be communicated effectively to audiences and wherever possible tracked for evaluating and celebrating.

And, of course, ethics is just one area of shifts in drivers of consumer expectations, needs and behaviours. Here are our tips for avoiding the generational icebergs ahead for marketers.

Max Kalis is a senior strategist at Start Design

Marketing Ethics

Content by The Drum Network member:

Start Design

Start Design is an independent, strategic design consultancy with studios in London, Manchester and Dubai. We have multi-skilled teams with cross discipline expertise,...

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