Friday, 3 December 2010

Take a moral position

There have been a few good posts lately on morality and its importance in both Government and politics. Hat tip to both John Robb and ZenPundit for these articles. Its been on my mind for a while to write something from my perspective as a communications consultant on the importance of a moral position to the perception of brands and individuals.

Its fair to say that it is far easier to be disliked than liked, and its not hard to be reviled. The bigger the brand, the more chance there is that scrutiny will dig up nasty details that will cause people to dislike you. Plenty of major brands suffer from this to one extent or another. Tesco is a good example, McDonalds is another. Microsoft struggled for a long time, and Apple is (in my opinion) just starting onto what will be a long slow decline.

There are a group of companies that are hated for reasons which are (relatively speaking) beyond their control. BP is probably the best current example. Ultimately the recent troubles they've had were a statistical possibility no matter what they did, and sooner or later, some sort of oil related disaster was going to happen.

For the majority of companies however, it is concious actions that lead to poor reputation, aided by a generally negative culture which, particularly in the UK, is suspicious of success.

The response by most companies is to undertake a vigerous CSR program, you can look at more or less any major company and find a bit of their website dedicated to the trees they plant, the things they recycle and the schools they give books to. Sadly, this has become so ubiquitous that it doesnt serve to garner a great deal of respect in the main.

The problem is that most companies have confused what it is that makes them unpopular, its not the activity they undertake on the outskirts of their business, its what resides at the very core that causes people to dislike them. Most people are able to take a nuanced enough view to understand the difference between CSR and activities which could be summed up as greenwashing.

Fundamentally, I believe, people are able to recognise what it is to be ethical, and ascribe companies instinctively with a moral value. You can't act evil on a day to day basis, then put out a press release about how you're planting trees in order to save the environment and expect people to treat you any differently.

Innocent smoothies were doing a great job, their brand was about as strong in the public eyes as is possible. But when they aligned themselves with Coca-cola they took a big hit in public perceptions. Due to the negative perceptions surrounding Coke were such that merely being associated with it was framed as a betrayal of Innocent's core values of healthy drinks.

In order to change perception you have to alter behaviour at the core level and adopt a positive moral stance. Consider Google, a company which generates almost universally positive opinion, despite being basically a monopoly and terrifying powerful. They get endless favourable press and widespread coverage of much of their anciliary activity. Even when they do something daft, like attack network neutrality, they somehow get away with it.

Google have avoided the appearence of greed, by investing widely in a range of programs like the self driving cars, they look like a technology company which is looking to provide things people want for the future. They've focussed their attention on relevant positive areas, which people are interested in and excited by. Its hard to argue that building a self driving car is anything other than a good thing.

The Conservatives had to undertake an extremely tough rebranding exercise when David Cameron took over the party. He revamped the Party aggressively around a positive new agenda, with the environment a major part of it. This was highly counter intuitive and was met with scorn initially, but by sticking consistently to the message and demonstrating a commitment to it, it grew in credibility over time.

When the expenses scandal hit Cameron went out and asserted a moral stance. Those who had exploited the system were simply wrong, and deserved to be punished. He didnt shy away from this and his attitude matched public sentiment perfectly. He also undertook measures early on to punish those who had clearly misbehaved. Although these measures were hardly earth shattering, they were significantly more than any other Party did, and the public responded well to his responsible attitude.

Coming into the election the Conservatives were seen as the Party with positive answers for the country, compared to Labour, who were percieved to have taken a negative, opportunistic aspect. The public is almost always turned off by aggression and negativity and I believe this key difference, between a moral positive stance, and a negative opportunistic one, played a major part in the election

Building this approach can be difficult, particularly for companies which have an extremely negative perception currently. It can take years, as it did with BP, and can be shattered in minutes, as it was with BP. It has to be consistent, relevant and something which people within the organisation are going to invest in.

The public finds its hard to trust, and will never give their trust easily. You've got to be willing to invest years, and actually believe in what you're trying to achieve if you expect the public to do the same. Money isnt enough to take you there, money will often trip you up.

Morality has a key part to play in changing attitudes towards brands and companies, if only because a strong moral stance is so damn unexpected.
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