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Responsible marketing: The human face of brands – by Heriot-Watt’s Dr Ross Curran

By Dr Ross Curran, assistant professor at Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University Dubai

In recent years, the consumer mindset has begun to evolve and shift towards conscious consumerism. A report by Nielsen that surveyed 30,000 consumers in 60 countries also found that 66 per of consumers were willing to pay more for goods from brands that demonstrated social commitment. Although bringing social responsibility to the top level in communications can inspire current and potential customers, authenticity is the caveat that brands need to focus on.

Many brands are falling into the trap of greenwashing or failing to align their brand’s core values with the social or environmental causes they adopt. This could create confusion and potentially damage their reputation. Most importantly, consumers have reached a level of awareness that enables them to discern when brands are inauthentic. Some examples are product inconsistencies when it comes to sustainable packaging and a lack of a long-term vision of how the brand intends to leverage the social cause.

Consumers are aware that sudden change is not possible. Therefore, establishing credibility by aligning the brand’s core values with the social or environmental cause being adopted is of essential importance. Although responsible marketing is becoming crucial to business survival and brand loyalty, brands should remember that the core purpose is to promote social and environmental awareness.

Some of the environmental factors that brands should consider before undertaking a social cause are evaluating their products or packaging to ensure it utilises earth-friendly elements, leveraging corporate initiatives such as recycling, reduced printing and energy-saving and committing to fair labour standards and practices. The more companies align their internal operations and products with sustainability standards, the more authentic they are likely to sound. Most importantly, being honest about where they are with respect to sustainable development. For example, Lego has declared in 2018 its goal to produce sustainable bricks by 2030. The brand’s long-term 12-year mission statement gives it credibility and can resonate with audiences.

In addition, operationalising social values such as equality and inclusion not only enable brands to connect with consumers but with their employees as well. This is very important, especially in light of remote work as individuals often lose touch with their organisations. Therefore, having a clear purpose statement gives employees a sense of contributing to a higher purpose and increases their loyalty to the brand.

Additionally, Deloitte’s Global Marketing Trends report in 2022 shows that 57 per cent of consumers worldwide indicate that they are more loyal to brands that address issues such as social inequality. Brands can achieve this by offering employees time off to support causes that tie back to the brand. In addition, asking questions like what local community support could your brand provide on a regular basis and whether your brand donates a per cent of its profits to organisations in need is essential when it comes to social responsibility. Most importantly, these questions can help brands define the social causes relevant to its brand’s core mission and values, which is likely to render efficient outcomes.

Finally, clear internal and external communication regarding a brand’s commitment to social and environmental responsibility helps engage employees across the organisation and potential as well as existing consumers. Transparency from the leadership and openness about social and environmental initiatives and their impact fuels interest and trust. Most importantly, it contributes to credibility and authenticity as it informs the relevant parties about the long-term resources to achieve social and environmental impact.

Many brands are concerned with facing extra costs with the transition to responsible marketing. However, the key is to prioritise long-term planning and honesty with consumers. Some allocate large budgets to highly publicised and expensive campaigns that, in some cases, fail to reflect the reality of the company’s progress with respect to its social and environmental agenda. Therefore, implementing sustainable and social causes within a company and focusing on gradual progress is a better approach. In addition, brands can make customers part of the solution by challenging them to choose between the cheaper option and the sustainable one. Along with this being an interactive exchange, it extends the sense of responsibility to consumers.

The ascension of responsible marketing to top business priorities has opened a venue for brands to engage in a more personalised manner with their consumers but has also introduced certain limitations. Brands should be aware of the balance between achieving customer loyalty by prioritising the causes that matter to them, while also retaining their authenticity and ensuring alignment between their brand values and the causes they adopt.