Opinion

Can marketers have morals?

Jessie Paul | Updated on October 15, 2020 Published on October 15, 2020

Values can be contextual and subjective. But taking a position brings with it both risks and benefits

Karva Chauth is coming up in November. A festival that I had not even heard of when I got married has become pan-Indian and popular, thanks to smart marketers. The festival involves finery, food, gold, silver, romance — what more could a discount looking for an occasion ask for?

Every year at this time there is also a lot of ranting on my Facebook feed that this festival is patriarchal. Can a marketer who feels this way and their brands ‘abstain’ from this promotion? Not likely — it is too big an opportunity. There are probably people in the Tanishq team who are ambivalent about the festival too, but they had even launched an app to track the fast in 2013.

Why do marketers feel tempted to give their brands a moral viewpoint? That’s because the first step to any business transaction, whether it is buying a packet of Parle-G biscuits or a bike, is trust. A belief that the product promise is true. So companies and their brands do things that they think will help them be seen as a ‘good’ company. Being ‘good’ results in a brand premium, a hiring premium and, hence, better shareholder value. Doing good helps them establish trust with their stakeholders, and gets customers and others to say, “this brand and I have so much in common!”.

Cultural norms

But ‘good’ varies by cultural norms. What is fine in one culture or location can be unacceptable in another. Companies that have an excellent track record, say, on gender diversity in India or the US cheerfully run women-only software centres in Saudi Arabia. Or, those espousing free speech in the US undertake self-censorship in China. Firms whose reputations are built on the excellence of their beef burgers remove it completely from their menu in India. Marketers cannot express a moral viewpoint that opposes their customers’ as long as it is legal.

Why would marketers push a narrative that they know may not resonate with 100 per cent of their audience? Flying in the face of accepted norms has three potential benefits: One, “man bites dog” is always a better story than “dog bites man”. Two, youth in many cultures are rebels and looking for brands that are aligned with their values. And, three, those who agree with your stance are likely to be more passionate customers.

A 2019 US Sprout Social Survey found that 70 per cent of consumers want brands to take a stand on social and political issues. Roughly half said they would boycott a brand that does not align with their views, and around one third said they would buy more from a brand that aligns with their views.

In 2014, I had put together a sample ‘basket of causes’ that marketers could use based on legal as well as social acceptance. The idea was to illustrate why some themes go more viral than others — low acceptance and high novelty.

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You will see that there is a memorable campaign for almost each one of these. When things go well, marketers and CEOs can express their social convictions and get a brand upside.

Wrogn and Titan’s Fastrack are carefully crafting their narrative, which is counter-convention. Hindu-Muslim unity was explored by Red Label earlier (though not without some backlash), and Fastrack and Anouk explored gay relationships.

Age of influencers

Tanishq’s attempt to discuss inter-faith marriage is causing such a kerfuffle because in the age of influencers, those against the ad’s position have mobilised opinion and used social media to amplify it. If the objective was to drive conversations on inter-faith marriages, then the campaign has certainly succeeded. Would this objective help to create a bond between their target audience and the brand?

Data is skimpy but in 2016 only 5 per cent of marriages were inter-caste, and in 2019 in Delhi only 3 per cent were interfaith. It is not a mainstream issue that customers want their brand to take a position on. Tanishq has a marketshare of around 5 per cent in jewellery and if it intends to be a marketshare leader then the upside of any kind of social change narrative is limited if the audience considers it to be peripheral to their lives.

It is now possible for interested buyers to assess any product from their particular position, for example, green, political affiliation, animal testing, GMO, pesticides, country of manufacture, country of ownership, religious affiliations. All it takes is for a vocal influencer to highlight that particular axis and a brand will have to answer for its allegiances.

Maximising shareholder value

If the goal of a company is to maximise value to its shareholders, then the people — whether it is the CEO or marketing head — cannot have an opinion that directly or indirectly negatively impacts revenue. For a public organisation, all its stakeholders and shareholders must be on board, as they will all be impacted. For a promoter-driven organisation to take this risk is easier — a single person is both the decision maker as well as the person impacted the most financially. The promoters of Titan own 53 per cent of the shares, which gives them more leeway to express their views than most, assuming the other 47 per cent are fine with it.

It is not often that companies are able to get permission from their shareholders to take a stance on matters such as climate change. ING restricting investments in fossil fuels or The Guardian stopping ads from fossil fuel extractors are examples of firms doing good at a potential impact to their profits. Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick is a great example of the management of a public company finding an appropriate way to express their opinion on what is not just a cultural movement but one that has political overtones. It worked because the opinion aligned with that of their core market.

The consumer’s idea of what is right or wrong changes fast either organically or in response to a trigger like China’s political actions, or an unjust death. Companies cannot spin on a coin so easily, and so marketers may not be able to express their morals through the brand. They can join protests, fund the cause, educate your stakeholders, and, of course, rant on WhatsApp and Facebook. Like the rest of us.

The writer is CEO, Paul Writer

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Published on October 15, 2020
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