Ethics and marketing are not natural bedfellows. In a business where selecting some ambient media options involves breaking the law simply for the sake of cut-through, competition can mean that ethics get left at the office door.
The problem is that being perceived to be on the wrong side of the ethical line can be extremely costly both in terms of reputation and brand image. Not for the first time, Nestlé found itself facing a torrent of bad public relations in December when it tried to recover £3.7m in compensation from debt and famine-stricken Ethiopia. Closer to home, Yahoo!'s recent advert featuring a stereotypically gay man and using the line "you can't trust the kindness of strangers" was condemned as "outdated and offensive" by special interest groups.Ultimately, the controversial execution was banned by the Independent Television Commission.
Combating such a crisis of reputation may be regarded as a job for the public relations department and, indeed, corporate social responsibility has been a big growth area for PR agencies in recent years. In some cases, the fuss will quickly die down and does not impact on brands for any length of time.
Sue Unerman, director of strategic solutions at MediaCom, says there is research that consumers will often ignore ethical concerns when it comes to purchasing decisions. "I think there's a strong degree of compartmentalization," she says.
Nevertheless, the ethical position of a company can be an important consideration for media folk, particularly where agencies claim to integrate the role of communications with the business planning function.
This is because making a public ethical statement can have a serious impact on a business' bottom line. The Co-operative Bank, which first launched its ethical positioning campaign in May 1992, now says that about 20% of its business can be attributed to its investment policy.
It's a stance that has helped it secure lots of charity clients as well as line up a host of affinity credit cards with big name ethical brands such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Oxfam. Such is the interest in ethical marketing that it is even attracting its own start-ups.
John Grant, a founder of advertising agency St Luke's, has teamed up with Russell Lack, a former regional chief executive of Pearson TV, to establish The Generative Company. The new outfit, founded last year, focuses on getting businesses to embrace the idea that they can make positive, long-lasting change for both their own benefit and the general benefit of society.
The firm highlights many of the problems of tackling ethical issues with a soft-soap communication. It says it is not about "claiming virtue, bland sentimentality, weak sponsorship and association, doing good for appearances or not for profit".
It cites Sony, with its vision of advancing creative and fulfilling lifestyles embodied by the Go Create campaign; Oddbins, which has taught mainstream Britain to appreciate good wine; and Tesco, where the high-profile Computers for Schools scheme has provided both social and business benefits, as examples of companies that are generative.
Forum for the Future, an environmental charity co-founded by Jonathan Porritt, is also working on the relationship between marketing and sustainability. The long-term project will assess whether brand messages fit into the wider use of resources debate. Research and information officer Lia Abady points out that, while Mastercard's There are some things money can't buy campaign scores well on this criterion, the recent Alliance & Leicester ad featuring a woman saving up all her money to buy Dorothy's shoes from The Wizard of Oz, does not.
Can a media plan be ethical?
But there is some doubt as to whether a media plan can ever be ethical. "I think many of the larger advertisers are too busy to think through the ethics of being in a break in a particular programme," says Guy Abrahams, strategy director at Carat.
Brands may avoid advertising in or sponsoring shows on porn channels, for example, but appearing in the breaks in the lightweight titillation on Five is not seen as being out of order. It's interesting that Chris Morris' Jam was broadcast without adverts but, generally speaking, ethics doesn't make it into the buying game unless brands want to avoid obvious controversy.
Most of the Co-op's targeting, for example, is based on reaching the 15% of the population that is particularly sympathetic to the ethical message. And, as any competent media planner will tell you, even consumers interested in ethical issues don't watch a constant diet of worthy shows. According to Abrahams, even appearing in a magazine such as The Big Issue has to justify itself on the media plan, anything else is just PR.
"I don't think you can show yourself to be ethical via the media you choose," says Abrahams. "If you were to do ethics within advertising it's easier to do it in the form of the message."
In other words, booking an ad in a John Pilger-fronted programme doesn't say anything about a brand's stance on the Palestinian issue.
Mike Colling, founder of direct response specialist Mike Colling & Company, which is working on green electricity supplier Unit[e], says the brand may still be using publications with a traditional green tinge to carry its insert which, naturally, is printed on recycled paper, but it is only a matter of time before the brand takes its place in the media mainstream.
"The market for green energy at the moment is still quite small. This time next year, if we're not in The Mail on Sunday then we'll certainly be in The Daily Telegraph," he confidently predicts.
Nevertheless, there is the sense that ethical companies will often communicate differently. "When you look at the way brands like Body Shop don't do much advertising you do suspect they don't do lots of advertising because they don't want to feel like another consumer brand," says Will Collin, founding partner at Naked.
In a sense, there are two extremes of ethical marketing. Firstly there's marketing by organizations that have ethics running through the very core of their being. This includes charities and companies such as the Co-operative Bank and chocolate brand Green & Black's.
At the other extreme are the more "normal" companies that want to attract some of the green/ethical/social responsibility kudos that will make consumers feel better about using their brands.
According to Marie Oldham, managing partner at the Media Planning Group, brands in the first category will often have to look at forms of communication other than above-the-line advertising.
"Brands that are truly founded in ethical belief and understanding actually are the ones where they have to do communication planning rather than advertising," she says.
Conducting a dialogue
This type of company needs to conduct a dialogue on a human level rather than screaming messages at consumers, she argues. Many of these brands also have a sense of personal discovery about them so membership schemes can prove highly effective.
Other channels that can work well are direct marketing and the internet, both of which can be personalized and have a more human tone to them.
"The best channels are word of mouth, always very difficult to generate on any scale, and PR, at least it comes from a trusted editorial source," says Will Collin.
Messages, too, need to be on a human scale. The National Lottery may have generated more than £12bn for good causes but most people simply don't relate to such statistics. A charity message that says £2.50 will help cure someone's cataracts in Africa is much more likely to make a connection.
Oldham argues that the communications planning for such brands will usually reverse the normal media plan. That means a lot more below the line and TV rarely taking more than 20% of the budget.
Many commercial ethical companies, however, do not want to compete purely on their founding principles.
"They would always prefer to justify their existence on the quality of the product they sell," says Agostino Di Falco, business director at Starcom Motive of the thinking behind Café Direct's marketing.
"Café Direct is not a single issue advertiser," he says, adding that the key constraint on communications is money. "The biggest thing that one pays attention to is the size of the budget because that forces us to think maybe in a slightly different way. It's quite limited when compared to its giant competitors."
Mark Palmer, marketing director at premium chocolate brand Green & Black's, takes a similar view. "It's product quality and taste that's ultimately what the brand's about," he says. "The ethics is an extra layer for consumers to uncover when they get to the brand."
In fact, for some consumers outside the ethical niche, shouting too loudly about its values can be damaging. "Ramming that message down their throats can be quite off-putting, what we try to do is provide that message for people to seek out," he says.
Nevertheless he concedes that there are some differences between a "normal brand" and Green & Black's. The brand launched its first advertising campaign last autumn, targeting consumers in London and the South-East via ads on the Tube, in Time Out, Metro and the Evening Standard.
"It might be a slightly slower burn message than you would perhaps try to achieve in a more mainstream brand that had very, very quick targets to reach," he says. "We'd certainly bear in mind our ethics there, I don't see a Green & Black's flyposting campaign, for example."
Ethically founded brands may be trying to escape the "niche brand" label and reach out to consumers, but they remain small compared to less "right-on" rivals. Maintaining an ethical stance as you get bigger is not nearly so easy.
"The difficulty about ethics is that it's very hard to remain that pure. I think the Co-op genuinely try to, but then the basis of its business is not about shareholders," says Abrahams.
He cites the recent sale of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream to Unilever as an example of how difficult it is to maintain an ethical stance as part of a larger organization.
The Ben & Jerry's Foundation that was formed as part of the deal - with a $5m endowment - has given money to anti-globalization protesters who were targeting Unilever among others. "In some ways, the only way you can maintain your credentials is to undermine yourself," says Abrahams.
According to Collin, any company seeking to promote its ethical credentials has to tread carefully. "Do it with some genuine substance, the worst thing to do is the soft soap," he says.
The most successful way to convince consumers that your brand also has ethical or socially responsible values has been cause-related marketing. Campaigns include Tesco's Computers for Schools, which has turned into an annual event since it was first started in 1992. The scheme has delivered more than £77m-worth of equipment to schools across the country in its first 10 years.
The benefit to the business has been an enhanced corporate profile, improved customer loyalty and increased sales.
Customers are made aware of Tesco's good work through PoS advertising in stores and national ad campaigns. The net result is that many consumers choose Tesco ahead of its rivals to feel that they are doing their bit for their child's education.
It doesn't stop there. Tesco is also involved in a project to minimize the amount of waste it produces, and to recycle wherever possible. Most notably, it has also noticed the high turnover in mobile phone handsets and has started collecting customers' old phones to be recycled.
Walkers and News International's Books for Schools campaign has helped supply £38m-worth of books in four years, with more than 34,500 schools taking part. The benefits to the business have included improved perception of The Sun and a promotion that reached more than 80% of the population.
The latter activity may have also provided a platform for anti-snack food campaigners to attack excessive consumption of crisps but, overall, the result has been extremely positive.
Successful ethical campaigns
Similarly, Persil's Pants to Poverty campaign, which linked the detergent with Comic Relief in 2001, attracted the highest recall of any campaign featured on Adshel. Brand ratings such as "It made me feel better about the product" and "This ad made me want to buy it" both scored highly in post-campaign research.
"If you get your link right or you do it with a lightness of touch, it allows you to get maximum benefit without being seen to be too commercial," says Carat's Abrahams.
Colling points out that cause-related marketing has evolved out of a tradition of corporate giving that has gradually become more involving and more complex.
At a simple level, a brand can simply sponsor the production of a charity commercial and receive an on-screen or on-ad credit for its financial help. Colling says brands that have followed this route, which gives the charity a free ad, are getting good sponsorship value compared with sponsoring an ITV programme.
"The charity is in a much stronger position with its donors because it can demonstrate that it's not spending its cash on advertising," he says. The difference between those that have successfully exploited cause-related marketing and the rest is that they are making the most of their social contribution to improve brand perception.
According to MediaCom's Unerman, it all comes down to integration. "Most large companies do have a 'good deeds division', but that's often very disconnected from their marketing," she says. "For a company like Walkers, it looks like they've joined the dots."
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has risen up the agenda for firms, keen not only to be profitable but to be seen by clients and customers to be doing the right thing.
PR firm Hill & Knowlton has recently released a review of the attitudes of CEOs, comparing the views of leaders from the US, Canada, Germany, the UK, Italy, Belgium and The Netherlands. They say it gives an interesting insight into the messages currently being filtered down from the top of company structures.
CEOs in Belgium had the largest degree of consensus here, with more than 70% of them seeing criticism in the print or broadcast media as being their biggest threat. Many of the other countries, particularly the UK and Germany, focused on allegations relating to product safety as the big threat.
Most of the sample agreed that increasing sales was the main objective for managing corporate reputation.
Nobody gave much credence to the argument that building credits with the public through your proactive corporate citizenship could pay many dividends if it all goes wrong.
Across the world, the majority of CEOs seem to believe that corporate social responsibility will be more important in the future than now.
CSR expert Mallen Baker says the aspects of social responsibility that will be most important in the future are:
- ethical values
- corporate governance
- treatment of employees.