How Ethics Reveal Brand Strength Or Weakness

One of a brand’s most important elements is its perception as a responsible entity. This is especially true of a corporate brand. Responsibility is about demonstrating good corporate citizenship. Responsibility must be corporate-wide. Responsibility must be ingrained into the enterprise as a whole and reflected in all thought and action. Every brand should have a responsibility ethic. Having a responsibility ethic means being an aware, effective global business behaving positively on behalf of people, stakeholders, communities, countries, animals, and the planet.

If there is one brand that has faced issues around its responsibility ethic over the past years, it is Meta, aka Facebook. Meta, as Facebook, careened from one irresponsible scandal to another. There was always denial and deflection. The brand’s behavior did not reflect anything close to a responsibility ethic. To address its ethical and social issues, Meta, then Facebook, created a Responsible Innovation Team. The Team’s mandate was to figure out how to address the disadvantages and drawbacks of Facebook’s product offerings. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Responsible Innovation Team comprised “… engineers, ethicists and others who collaborated with internal product teams and outside privacy specialists, academics and users to identify potential concerns about new products and alterations to Facebook and Instagram.”

The vice president of the Responsible Innovation Team stated that the Team’s efforts helped design product offerings “with a privacy-first approach.” She indicated that she was optimistic about the Team’s abilities as its efforts were advised by experts in “civil rights, accessibility, human rights and safety.”

Now, it turns out that all that “optimism” may have been misplaced. A spokesperson for Meta says that the Responsible Innovation Team is disbanded. The Team’s members will be dispersed into the company while its “safe and ethical design resources were better spent on more issue-specific teams.”

From a branding perspective, this is a mistake. Responsible business practices influence brand perceptions which in turn influence brand preference. A brand’s societal reputation influences purchase and usage decisions. Data show that ethical policies tend to increase profitability, not decrease profitability. This is because many people are prepared to pay a premium for products and services that have a responsibility ethic at the core.

Other data indicate that people build relationships with brands that do good things. And, increasingly, people are willing to reject brands they perceive as irresponsible. These data are not just recent. As far back as 2013, a large global study showed that 85% of the 10,000 respondents “considered corporate responsibility” when deciding where to shop, what to buy and what to recommend. Brands that are perceived as responsible gain customer trust, an extremely critical element in today’s uncertain world.

Meta is currently staring down some major issues with a slowing of its advertising business and a deft competitor. Younger users seem to prefer and interact more with TikTok. And, there is the transition to the “metaverse” that CEO Mark Zuckerberg wishes to achieve. These issues could be helped by reinforcing Meta’s commitment to responsibility. Advertisers are increasingly sensitive to responsibility as consumers are very alert to irresponsible brand behaviors and attitudes. Furthermore, one of the mandates for the Responsible Innovation Team was to play a part in shaping the way Meta addressed and managed the potential ethical downsides to building the metaverse. Without this guidance, Mr. Zuckerberg’s metaverse could wind up as an amoral meta mess.

Brands do not exist in a vacuum. A brand is more than a consistent, distinctive identity. A brand contributes a common, positive, ethical relevant culture, values, purpose and ambition to the brand’s priorities and objectives.

Having a responsibility ethic within an organization builds a strong, trustworthy brand internally and externally. A strong brand is a value creation advantage. Having people perceive a brand to be responsible creates strong brand bonds. These strong brand bonds create value with customers. Without customer-perceived value there is no brand value.

Allocating responsibility project-by-project within a massive organization such as Meta is mismarketing and mismanagement. This approach does not create internal responsibility ethic. And, without an internal responsibility ethic, there will be no external responsibility perceptions. Responsibility cannot be corporate-wide if it is addressed in a piece-meal fashion. Responsibility becomes siloed within a project.

The Meta brand could use a corporate-wide responsibility ethic. For Meta, as for any brand, not having a corporate-wide responsibility ethic is irresponsible brand management behavior.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Larry Light, Author of The Paradox Planet: Creating Brand Experiences For The Age Of I

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