Don’t just do the right thing – say it as well

Do the right thing

What is missing in the narrative about the corporate higher purpose is how to make sure the brand reflects the social mission overtly in consumer communications. Here we begin to bridge the gap between ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘saying the right thing’ based on evidence gained from two recent case studies. But first let’s back up a little.

The story so far
Much of the management narrative around ‘doing the right thing’ has been framed by the entrepreneurial movers and shakers who first dared to build businesses and brands with an unapologetically social mission – from Patagonia to Toms to Whole Foods.

Academics of various hues have nurtured the debate, not least the fabled Michael Porter. His model of creating ‘shared value’, along with the obligation of even the best corporate citizen to turn a profit, has gained increasing intellectual traction at the expense of corporate social responsibility. Indeed, to use marketing speak, the latter looks to be increasingly repositioned – some would say unfairly – as an outmoded and apologetic sop to stakeholders and conscience, rather than guiding business motive.

Shades of grey still abound, of course, and there remains some resistance to the impulse for business and brands to tackle a social or ethical agenda alongside, or in place of, government and NGOs – the historical ‘prime movers’ of doing good. But Porter’s recent TED talk and subsequent debate with his more sceptical Harvard peer, Professor Michael Sandel, framed the optimistic case for businesses as social agents especially well.

Describing 'a higher kind of capitalism', Porter challenged the conventional wisdom that there is necessarily a trade-off between economic and social performance, suggesting instead that businesses might actually profit from solving social problems by 'meeting important needs, not incrementally competing for trivial differences in product attributes and market share'. Stirring stuff from a professor of competitiveness and strategy.

There is research evidence aplenty that supports Porter’s premise. Nielsen’s 2012 report, The Global Socially Conscious Consumer, found that 66% of the world’s consumers prefer to buy from companies that give back to society and – perhaps more crucially – 46% say they would pay more to do so. More granular research conducted by the University of Western Ontario offered further encouragement to those who would trade ethically, reporting that: 'Consumers were willing to pay a slight premium [in all our tests] for the ethically made goods. But they went much further in the other direction: they would buy unethically made products only at a steep discount. What’s more, people with high standards for corporate behaviour rewarded the ethical companies with bigger premiums and punished the unethical ones with bigger discounts.'

The bottom line
So beneath some of the grander claims made for companies that ‘do the right thing’ lies a more prosaic marketing truth: that for most, if not all, branded businesses, a segment of our consumer base will not just prefer us, but will confer a premium on our goods and services, if we are known to trade ethically.

Put another way, ignoring our ethical footprint and reputation contributes to commoditisation and downward price pressure, the very gravitational forces that brand marketing seeks to resist. A topic that – regardless of personal politics – begs the attention of brand marketers everywhere.

Yet for all the noise that attaches to this topic, there are relatively few examples of organisations that have managed to drag their social mission into their brand communications. With a handful of shining exceptions, our ethics tend at best to command a ‘supporting actor’ role when we communicate. Equally, there are few published case studies that propose some kind of best practice in this more executional area: when a company decides not just to be ethical, but to promote its ethics from backstage company value to ‘front-of-stage’ consumer proposition.

Two recent campaigns co-authored by 101 shine some light on this delicate translation of good corporate behaviour into ‘good comms’. They are, I am sure, imperfect (at least one has come under attack). But the similarities between them are sufficiently strong to suggest that there are some common navigation points for those inclined to embellish their brand’s ethical credentials, rather than just their business’s. This is despite the fact that the brands in question could not be more different – a 15-year-old smoothie brand founded by entrepreneurs on the one hand, and a 140-year-old supermarket on the other.

Innocent was born in 1999 with unabashed intentions to be a good company (seller, employer, buyer, neighbour) as well as a thoroughly modern brand. Its dedication to giving and not just taking has taken many forms since then, from free festivals for fans and the ‘Big Knit’ initiative in aid of Age UK to its ongoing commitment to donate at least 10% of its profits to charity each year via the Innocent Foundation.

But although it is held dear by the company – and understood by its better-informed stakeholders – that spirit of generosity, or perhaps just plain good citizenship, had rarely made its way through to the brand’s above-the-line communications. It was, at best, a vague impression among the majority of its customer base – certainly compared to consumers’ playback of Innocent’s more concrete claims, such as ‘Two of your five a day’. The recent reorientation of the brand around this broader premise in the guise of ‘Tastes good, does good’ is the primary source of the ten-point ‘roadmap’ shown below.

Sainsbury’s was founded in 1869 with a trading philosophy it summarised as ‘Quality perfect, prices lower’, placing an unusual premium on the key ethical issue for grocers of that era: food safety. There are few large companies more dedicated to their values or who commit as publicly to their environmental, ethical and sustainable practices and objectives. Three recent online ‘shorts’ for Sainsbury’s make up a small part of a much larger ‘storytelling’ and values agenda, but its development and distribution echo our findings from the larger-scale Innocent exercise.

Our strategic and creative journey across both brands has taught us ten things that we share here as top-line advice for anyone looking to transition from ‘doing the right thing’ at a business level to ‘saying the right thing’ at a brand level.

1. Do not pass go…
…Unless you are doing the right thing, and have been for some time. Ideally, forever. More than any other campaign premise, ethical self-advancement must spring from the brand and company fabric itself, and survive the inspection that will surely come its way.

2. Anchor your ambitions in strategy – and reality
Advancing a brand’s ethical claims is not to be done lightly. It must be based on a plausibly intuitive premise – that your brand, in that competitive set, will be made stronger for making its ‘citizenship’ case, rather than just restating its more prosaic proposition.

Develop at least a mental model of how ‘advertising your insides’ might work to the brand’s advantage. Is it all or part of your desired brand meaning? All or part of your communications footprint? In the case of Innocent, intuition was cemented via a thoughtful programme of qualitative research.

3. Beware consumer overclaim
'I would definitely buy it/shop there if I knew that' is a consumer impulse to be wary of in a world where price, availability and competitive claims abound. Too much research still creates the climate for System 2 thinking and System 2 recommendations. But we still largely shop in System 1.

4. Beware corporate overclaim
This is arguably even more dangerous, given the possibility of backlash and the broader context of consumer and opinionformer scepticism – largely healthy – that attaches to any brand’s attempt to ingratiate itself as a good citizen. Find a credible consumer narrative around what you do, whatever the lofty claims or credentials of the business actually are.

5. Tell the truth
This is your shield at all times. And, yes, it should go without saying. But there’s a particular premium on it when you put your head above the parapet to say, rather than do, the right thing. The truth may be a little elusive at first: a brand’s social contribution often plays out at several removes from the marketing department. Don’t claim to have helped Janet, Otai and Joseph in Uganda by selling a smoothie in Crouch End if you haven’t.

6. Tell it well
The information is one thing. And in the case of ethics and sustainability, often a heavy thing at that. But now that it is part of our story, it must be true to the brand’s voice, rather than the voice of ethics, if it is to live at the centre, rather than the margins, of consumer brand beliefs. It also needs to defray any sense of holier than thou.

So Innocent’s work with Practical Action in Peru and Send-a-Cow in Uganda becomes a playfully hyperbolic demonstration of the chain of good that a mere smoothie can start. The protagonist in our film, Mark, remains blissfully unaware of any good he has done by choosing Innocent (a critical research finding). And Sainsbury’s sourcing stories around everyday staples, such as apples, tea and milk, become endearing animations that credit others for the way it does business, styling it as the happy beneficiary of their ideas and efforts – as co-worker, rather than self-regarding corporate.

7. Tell it in the right space
‘Advertising your insides’ is classic deepening-the-relationship stuff. It makes sense that it first takes root among existing customers as a new layer of dialogue. So owned media, on-pack or instore – from Facebook pages to YouTube channels – are an obvious place to start. If it feels right here, it will feel right ‘on air’.

8. Set appropriate expectations
Thanks to the work of the IPA and others, we can say with growing certainty that rational, persuasion-based communication creates short-term spikes but deposits less in the long-term brand tank – and that emotional engagement does the opposite. If we are to tell our ethical stories emotionally, it follows that we should expect our rewards to accrue over time, rather than instantaneously – in the form of ongoing preference, perhaps, improved loyalty and enhanced price (in)elasticity.

9. Expect inspection
You might be forgiven for thinking that brands that do the right thing would be welcomed with open arms as they step forward into the commercial jungle. In practice, our Innocent campaign encountered criticism from surprising quarters on the basis of everything from cultural stereotyping (and here truth was on our side; good intentions never won any critic over) to accusations of ‘too little, too late’, and perhaps even corporate grandstanding, despite our carefully considered path.

Be prepared. Have a journalistic sensibility and engage in the debate. That noise you hear is the sound of your idea working.

10. Be dogged
Because it’s harder than classic copy development. Because it’s critical that what you do is true, rather than just rings true. Because you will be criticised despite your good intentions. Because of all the above, you will need strength and determination in your efforts to turn doing into saying the right thing. But because ‘why’ is becoming more important than ‘what’, because brand marketers will be doing more, not less of this in the future, and because that exercise doesn’t just require, but encourages, cross-company co-operation, it matters that you do so.

Laurence Green is a founding partner of 101 London. This article was taken from the June 2014 issue of Market Leader. Browse the archive here.