MAKING A STAND – Should brands provide moral leadership?

MAKING A STAND – Should brands provide moral leadership?

Unilever received a lot of plaudits recently for a speech by its chief marketing officer on the issue of digital marketing.  He has stated that the company could withdraw its advertising from online platforms such as Facebook if they don’t eradicate content which creates division in society and promotes anger and hate*.

This capturing of the moral high ground seems like a low risk strategy. After all, who could argue with the sentiment of not wanting to promote hate?  However, positioning a decision as a moral, rather than a commercial one, can be fraught with problems.

We recently saw the issues Virgin Trains faced when they decided to stop selling the Daily Mail on board. The company presented this decision as a value judgement, made on the basis of the publication’s editorial content. Cue an entirely predictable backlash, accusations of censorship and a swift U-turn.

Last year Boots got itself into bother over its stance on the morning after pill.  It had refused to lower the cost of the emergency contraception stating that it did not want to be seen to be ‘incentivising inappropriate use’ by reducing the price of the product, despite the fact that other large retailers had halved their prices for the pill.  The response from women was pretty clear – the company should not be making judgements on their behaviour.  Faced with a threat of a boycott, the company bowed to pressure, made an apology and said it would reduce the price of the pill – albeit not immediately.

The fact is that we don’t all have the same views on every issue and so while some judgements based on values can be clear cut, we can quickly get into areas where people disagree.  And for the large social media companies, every value judgement they make takes them away from their preferred positioning of merely being platforms, and towards being publishers, with all the regulatory and commercial ramifications that this entails.  Unilever’s statement has helped shine a light on the processes of the social media giants, which can surely only be to everyone’s benefit, whatever the true drivers of the decisions.

Most people want the companies and brands they use to adhere to positive values, however it’s vital that these are genuine, are consistent with previous behaviour and are not merely commercial decisions dressed up as corporate responsibility.  The moral high ground can be an exposed place to be if your audiences believe you’re there under false pretences.

*(We’ll ignore the irony that one of the company’s iconic brands is building a positioning around dividing consumers into Marmite lovers and haters.  Obviously showing a young girl shout “I hate you” at her mum is not supposed to be taken seriously, even if parents might not appreciate the example she’s setting.)

Written by Brandon Stockwell, Director

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