Despite many so-called figureheads in politics, sport, showbiz and other areas of public life showing a distinct lack of ethics – pick your own favourite baddie – it seems morals matter more to us than ever. In fact, surveys show that we’re actually getting nicer.

If the dictionary definition of an ethic is ‘a set of shared behavioural principles by which actions may be judged right or wrong’, in the context of brands, we tend to mean positive intentions regarding social and environmental impact.

Well, the good news is, there are definite signs of a positive shift in consumer behaviour, with a strong generational trend to more mindful spending. (On the subject of generational shifts, here are our tips for avoiding the generational icebergs.)

So, beyond the fact that it’s clearly good to be good, seems it pays to be good too. Here’s the evidence:


As to what’s driving this movement, that’s a pretty deep question.

Consumers have certainly more choice than ever and are increasingly exposed to ‘issue-led’ marketing. Many of their news and social media feeds are filled with worthy causes championed by NGOs, commercial activism from companies like Lush and Patagonia or trailers for earnest documentaries, like comedian Simon Amstell’s recent vegan polemic Carnage, or the latest blockbuster Blue Planet series.

Whatever the motivation – moral, tactical, or somewhere in between – how could a brand position or reposition itself best to catch this rising tide?

We’ve identified five ethical ‘brand personality types’ and potential routes of travel.

  1. Unsung Heroes

 This is you if: You’re doing some good things, but nobody knows.

For companies whose brand principles and products are already aligned with higher ethical standards, there’s is a straightforward opportunity to shout about them. For most brands, there’ll be some elements of your operations that straddle the ethical line. How much this matters to your customers’ individual sensitivities is a case-by-case thing. Marks & Spencer, for example, received good press for adopting the living wage in London, but it still uses plenty of plastic packaging.

Your next step could be: Communicate your positive actions. If it’s easy, why not?

  1. Nothing-to-hiders

 This is you if: You’re not doing much of merit, but you’re not doing anything bad.

An alternative is to claim you’ve got nothing to conceal or apologise for. These campaigns classically play on transparency. Absolut Vodka recently used ‘frank nudity’ to great comic effect to support its case for being ‘The vodka with nothing to hide’. Provided there aren’t any grounds for you being caught out, this approach can effectively rebut the reservations of generally sceptical consumers, irrelevant of specific ethical charges.

Your next step could be: State the absence of harm in your product or brand. Even not doing anything wrong is an asset.

3. Fast followers

 This is you if: You’re willing to make some small operational change – albeit nothing major, or front-running

If your brand’s activities are a little dicey, you could choose to change something small but obvious and make as much mileage as you can from it. McDonalds swiftly adopted a ban on plastic straws after there was a proposal to regulate single use plastics. This combination of being pro-active and reactive – could we maybe call this ‘preactive’? – performs the optimum balancing act. Gaining good PR but delaying costly change.

Your next step could be: Consider just-in-time participation. Fine, if you can risk not getting the timing right and missing the PR opportunity.

 4. Landscape Shapers

 This is you if: You’re actively involved in driving the cultural changes creating ethical shift

Companies that go beyond their core propositions to accelerate change in the world can position themselves at the head of a movement for good. File-sharing platform WeTransfer wants to combat the possible effects of the US government ending its protection of net neutrality in April 2018. (Net neutrality is the broadly observed principle that all traffic online is treated equally. Ending it flies in the face of the wishes of internet founder Tim Berners Lee, or in fact anyone who thinks knowledge shouldn’t only be available to the highest bidder.) To fight their corner for egalitarian surfing, WeTransfer has teamed up with The Community Broadband Project – to build a net-neutral web of affordable Internet Service Providers.

Your next step could be: Commit to ethical trends that are aligned with your company’s long-term activities. Driving the shift means you gain sustainable benefits.

  1. Contrarians

 This is you if:  You’re never going to align with rising ethical standards, the expected lifespan of your product is relatively short, or you’re not afraid of controversy

There is a counter position to be taken – appeal directly to those who don’t subscribe to touch-feely views or why actively hate to hear the trundle of a bandwagon. Drink brand Oasis recently ran a campaign to mock certain brands for their earnest purpose-driven claims, by launching a fake double-ended ‘sharing bottle’.

Sometimes we see very big brands deliberately riding a wave that takes them into choppier waters. Nike’s recent campaign with controversial ex-NFL star Colin Kaepernick, had a predictably divided reaction. Passionate supporters on one side – like former CIA director John Brennan – and a whole slew of deriders, from the US President down, including many furious consumers eager to share images of themselves torching their own Nike shoes and clothing. Although it’s in all senses a burning issue, even if Nike’s stance was merely a clever calculation, it certainly seems to have paid off. Their online sales grew by 31% in the bank holiday weekend after the ad launched, according to researcher Edison Trends.

Your next step could be: Aim to communicate across the ethical grain but be prepared for backlash – which you should plan to capitalise on.

So, what have we learned?

For any successful adjustment to your brand ethic, your projected values need to be true to you core business. Which could require you to make a whole change of direction. But, wherever you choose to take a stand, you need to communicate your beliefs and actions effectively and, wherever possible, track them for to evaluate them. And to celebrate them, when they deliver the goods.

Max Kailis

Max Kailis


Max Kailis - Senior Strategist, Start Design.