Is branding ethical?

Is branding ethical? Is integrity involved? If you’ve read our booklet Being Equus you will know that this is a question we care a lot about. Are we helping consumers make enlightened choices based on a better understanding of what sets a particular product or service apart, or are our skills being used to lure consumers, zombie-like, into the clutches of our evil paymasters? In other words, are brand consultants like us a force for good, or a force for greed?

What is a brand?

To consider this, first we have to look at what we mean when we talk about ‘branding’. Brands are commonly thought to be created by their owners, expressed in the logo and packaging they apply to it. But a brand is actually ‘created’ by its consumers. A brand is simply a collection of impressions we hold in our minds: an image we unconsciously create comprised of every experience we have had of a particular product, or service, or organization. Every company therefore has a ‘brand’ in consumer’s minds, whether it is aware of it or not. So when we talk about branding as a profession, it is the conscious effort to manage those impressions.

When this process forces a company to take a long hard look at itself, take a position on what value it’s brand brings to the world, and stay true to it, this can be a cause for good. Because it can result in better products, better customer service, better working conditions, and in today’s more ethically sensitive market place, a more positive stance on issues such as environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

But when there is a temptation to spin a brand’s stated qualities beyond what it actually delivers, this can result in downright fraud.

The importance of ethical branding

At this point the ethics of the branding agency come into the picture – do we simply ‘take the money and run’ or do we take a deeper look at what the brand is really about, and determine what it stands for and how it truly behaves? Equus takes the view that we will only work on brands that we truly believe in, which for us concerns not only the quality or integrity of the product itself, but also the market in which it operates. Which is one reason why we will not work for clients involved in (for example) promoting tobacco, or gambling, or unsustainable logging, or the international arms trade.

We must not forget that the internet has brought an unparalleled level of transparency to the scene; brands may promise whatever they want but if they don’t deliver they had better watch out, because someone will notice and tell the world. BP’s flowery ‘Beyond Petroleum’ positioning was demolished overnight by revelations of shoddy safety concerns leading up to the Deepwater Horizon oil-spill, and Nike suffered with revelations about its sweatshops in SE Asia. The pressure is on nowadays for brands to deliver on what they promise, which can only be for the good.

importance of ethical branding

The bigger question of ethical branding

All of the above doesn’t yet address the bigger question of the ethics of the consumerist society in which our brands exist and compete. Looking at the USA where the consumer society started, the majority of people 100 years ago would generally buy only what they needed (e.g. a pair of sturdy shoes) as opposed to what they wanted. Now the term ‘need’ has been somewhat devalued – in our aspirational world, we all ‘need’ the latest iGadget to make our lives complete.

According to award-winning documentary maker Adam Curtis, our modern consumer society is basically the legacy of various attempts made in America since the 1920s by the two power elites – big business and government – to manipulate and exploit the latent subconscious needs of the public. His premise is that, leveraging the psycho-analytical insights of Sigmund Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, democracy and free choice have at various times been largely illusions created or manipulated by these two elites to keep the masses under control and sustain economic growth. With the result
that the purchasing decisions and voting choices of the American public were neither as free nor as conscious as they thought.

While that might accurately describe the genesis of American consumerism it wouldn’t entirely account for the forces at work in the consumer culture worldwide. But clearly there is more at play in our branding choices than our own conscious needs or desires, and we are all aware that brand owners sometimes resort to subconscious manipulation of our choices in unscrupulous ways.

The task at hand – informed choices

Ultimately though, so long as we are aware of this mix of forces at work and educate ourselves about the issues, we can exercise the freedom to make our own choices, rewarding those ethical brands which deliver what we really need and represent the values we espouse. The question is, how well-informed are our choices? As a branding agency we see it as our task to make those consumer choices as informed as possible, and to give our client’s brands a voice which speaks with a kind of integrity to what the brand really stands for, and truly delivers.

Also find out how we think brands can create value or our retrospective on Wally Ollins.