Back in February, I wrote a piece entitled ‘Time for Some Moral Marketing.  My hope was that 2012 would provide the antidote to the widespread corporate, political and social immorality of 2011 (expenses-fiddling politicians, corrupt bankers, phone hacking, abuse in ‘care’ homes, riots…).

We were all hopeful that the Jubilee and Olympics/Paralympics would provide the feel good factor we were desperate for.  Sadly, the Jubilee was an over-long washout but our athletes did us proud, and lifted the national mood.  Some of our marketing departments, however, fell rather short.  Coke and McDonald’s tried to justify their alignment to sport, the Olympic Park pretended it was ‘proud to only accept Visa’ and P&G told mums that ‘it takes a lot of washing up to produce an athlete’.

Much corporate behaviour remains indefensible.  The banks have added PPI mis-selling, LIBOR rate fixing and money laundering to their list of crimes and Vodafone, Arcadia, Amazon, Apple, Starbucks et al are avoiding UK taxes on a grand scale.

Starbucks, apparently, haven’t made a profit in 14 years of trading in the UK.  That’s either incredibly bad business practice or a downright lie.  It especially jars when their CEO, Howard Schultz, devoted large chunks of his recent book (‘Onward’) to their social responsibility programmes.  In his own words;

“Going about our business in ways that were good for the people as well as good for the planet is something Starbucks has always strived to do.  It is part of our DNA.”


“Because of our founding mission to achieve the fragile balance of profit with social conscience, Starbucks has long had a reputation for being a different kind of company”.

Howard, a word.  Even ‘different kinds of companies’ need to pay their taxes.  Being socially responsible doesn’t just mean sourcing your Fairtrade coffee beans in Rwanda.

At the start of this year, Unilever pledged to make marketing “noble again… to drive social progress as well as sales”.   I was really encouraged by this, but looking at their advertising – and their own website – nothing is really evident yet.  Marketing Week just reported on their Sustain Ability project, which seems well intentioned, but is it really much more than a super-sized focus group?  We shall see…

For many companies, CSR still appears to be nothing more than an annual report, box ticking exercise.  A recent piece by Marketing Week’s Secret Marketer illustrates this attitude perfectly;

“This week the board asked me what I could do to pump up our score in an upcoming corporate responsibility league table… (we got busy) publishing our code of ethics on our website, updating our corporate lobbying policy and ensuring the team are up-to-date with registering corporate hospitality….”

Absolutely nothing about what they were actually doing to make the business more socially responsible.  Pretty appalling.  He goes on to say;

“Does being truly ethical make a business more successful? And with the economy the way it is, can we afford to put conscience before contracts?”

Well not with that attitude, no.  Perhaps he should read Richard Branson’s ‘Screw Business as Usual’, which shows how it’s totally possible to be a wealth-generating capitalist without exploiting your employees, your customers, your suppliers and the planet.

Genuine CSR seems to be sliding further down most brands’ agendas.  Do businesses really think it’s too big a commitment in a recession?  I’d suggest that’s exactly the time you should be reviewing the long-term sustainability of your business.  It doesn’t have to be about investing millions in new operating procedures – it’s just about playing nicely in the (global) communities in which you operate.

So big respect to Costa Coffee for listening to the people of Totnes and pulling out of the town with complete grace.  I’m sure they didn’t need to implement a complex new CSR strategy before making that call.  They also didn’t need to do much to capitalize on the fact that, unlike Starbucks, they pay all their UK taxes.  (The newspapers were happy to do that for them).

Good marketing departments should represent the voice of the customer within the business and that requires an involvement in the whole product or service delivery.  So they are best placed to genuinely make a difference.  With the right (fair, decent and truthful) long-term strategy in place, brands have a real opportunity to showcase a new way of doing business, and to reach those consumers who are thoroughly sick of the ‘old way’.

Oh, and if you ever wondered about the value of your business having a clear moral conscience – just ask anyone at the BBC right now.