Creating an Ethical Branding Strategy that Matters to Consumers

Is your brand ethical? Does it have a cause or purpose that its people truly believe in and are committed to? Or are its initiatives primarily marketing techniques?

In recent years, many brands have had to assess their ethics and impacts on society as customers demand more transparency, and become increasingly concerned about environmental, political, and social issues. As organizations look to meet this customer need, there have been successes and failures in ethical brand strategies. Success results in an improved connection with customers, while failure occurs when consumers don’t believe your efforts are sincere. Discover why ethical brand strategy is important, its potential risks, and how it connects with customers.

Unethical Behavior is No Longer an Option

Today, it is very difficult for organizations to hide unethical behavior. Negative interactions can be filmed and sent to news outlets, transparency laws are being implemented, and unhappy customers and employees have the power to tell their story to a large audience online. Brand reputations may be quickly damaged and mass boycotting can be planned.

As more scandals are reported, people become less trusting of brands in general. To avoid these repercussions, organizations have to be very careful about their actions. It’s not enough to simply avoid negative press and publish a Corporate Social Responsibility report. To be viewed positively, brands need to be leaders in ethics and social impact.

Moving Towards Corporate Citizenship

According to research by Deloitte, people are becoming more frustrated by political efforts to solve problems such as diversity and inclusion, gender pay equity, income inequality, immigration, and global warming— and are looking to businesses to help address them. To remain competitive, organizations need to meet the growing demand for trusted brands that care about more than just profit.

In a recent study by Unilever, 33 percent of consumers said they choose to buy from brands based on their social or environmental impact. Seventy-seven percent of consumers in the study said that citizenship, or an organization’s ability to do good and account for its actions, is important. It is an evolved Corporate Social Responsibility strategy that moves away from a traditional marketing program and integrates it into an organization’s identity and brand purpose. With a more central role, social impact initiatives are more likely to be believable and successful.

Make Sure it is Genuine

Aligning your brand with a cause is a risky endeavor, and a company needs to genuinely care about it in order to be trusted. Possible negative perceptions and reactions need to be carefully considered and thought through, since campaigns that are tone-deaf or exploitative can create backlash. Skeptical consumers will see through marketing techniques and efforts can backfire. Another important consideration is brand fit.

Patagonia, for example, has good brand fit with the environmental initiatives that it supports since it sells outdoor clothing. Supporting a cause that is unrelated or vaguely related to your product or service is more likely to be seen as inauthentic. It is also important to make sure that your messaging is somewhat subtle. While you want people to know about your positive initiatives, talking about them too much or too directly can create the impression that you are just in it for the exposure.

Do Good, Feel Good

A brand that is genuine and creates a positive impact will stand out and make people feel good about supporting it. Buying from a purpose-focused brand helps customers feel like they are contributing to a better future. For example, for every pair of eyeglasses sold, Warby Parker donates a pair to someone in need. Many people also choose a brand as a form of self-expression. Their purchase decisions become linked to their identity as someone who wants to help make a difference in the world. If this connection is formed, it is a strong emotional bond that will likely lead to loyal customers.

Not only will ethical branding better connect brands with customers; it can attract employee talent as well. Working for an ethical and socially impactful company helps employees feel good about their choice of employment. In a survey by Deloitte, 88 percent of Millennial workers (aged 24-35) at private sector organizations said they believe employers should help address issues such as income inequality, hunger, and the environment, and 86 percent say business success should be measured by more than profitability.

As long as a focus on social impact initiatives comes from a genuine place, it can be a compelling way to connect with customers and employees. Brands have a lot of influence, and it is important that it is used for positive impact. If every brand made one small impact in the world, it would make a big difference for all of our futures.