Forget religion, could brands be the new champions of social values?

Who is responsible for the values of our society? For teaching us what matters, what is right and wrong and the degrees between?

In the UK we have lost religion, and with it, a way of instilling values upon society. More people go to O’Neill’s pub in Muswell Hill than went to the same building when it was a church. So who can fill the gap?

Certainly not politicians or newspapers – look at the way they behave. Even the BBC is been questioned about its moral values. And as for celebrities… God help us – drugs, drink, sex! So who can we look to to guide the next generation?

The answer may well lie in brands. Our relationship with brands can be more influential than our parents as those relationships reflect our own values. Just consider the difference between someone who shops at Primark vs the Co-op. Or Coutts bank vs Triodos bank. A Prius driver vs a Hummer driver. The brands we engage with therefore can also influence us and reshape our values, in the same way as our friends can, because we connect with them.

When M&S launched Plan B it sent a big message to its customers, ethics matter. When you buy a KIA car you get a free bike and they also support Walk to School Week. Through these simple actions they are sending a strong environmental message to their customer. If IKEA were to instigate a ‘new use for old furniture’ campaign it sends a message to its customers – recycling matters. When Starbucks started selling real Fairtrade coffee a decade ago they made a statement to their loyal fans that paying farmers a fair wage matters.

These messages may sometime be directed directly at their consumers, or subtle, but once a brand like Body Shop draws you in the influence is very powerful.

And in the current market, brands with values gives you a competitive advantage because consumers are looking more and more at the values and ethos of brands. Very few consumer want to deal with unethical brands and prefer brands that reflect their values, both emotionally and visibly.

By contrast, the fact Starbucks isn’t paying UK tax goes against their ethics and leaves the consumer shocked and disappointed. How can a brand that says it cares about people also be as greedy as a banker? Now your consumer is confused. It’s a good lesson in why you should never let accountants run your business, they don’t have the right values!

For decades family and religion has played a critical role in maintaining social values. But like so many things, times move on.

The typical middle England, middle aged, middle class Daily Mail reader will blame the digital world for the decline of the real world. Sex, war games the new C.O.D. (sold 8 million copies in just 24 hours), gambling, even exploitative pay day loans – you can understand why some may see it as a devil’s playground.

There’s certainly a fair debate to be had about how much good vs bad influence the internet has had upon modern society. But we should remember that TV and rock n roll were also once seen as corrupting youth and societies values. Before that, books and coffee houses.

Values tend to influence attitudes and our behavior. What we do is linked to what we believe. According to the sociologist, Morris Massey, our core values are formed during three significant periods of growing up:

1. The Imprint period is from birth to 7 years, when we are absorbing everything around us and accepting much of it as true, especially when it comes from our parents who are our greatest influence. This is the time we learn a sense of what is right and wrong. This is when boundaries are first set.

2. The Modelling period is from 8 –13 years, when we copy people, often our parents, but also other people like teachers or are influenced by religion. We start to question rather than believe everything as true.

3. The Socialisation period from 13 –21 years. These are the years when we are most influenced by our peers and follow social norms. Sadly, we are also influenced by celebrities and the media (fashion and trends). It is a time when kids are seeking identity as a way to define themselves. Ironically, they think they are rebelling, challenging the system and authority, when they are actually conforming to a new peer group.

Beyond 21 we have a mind of our own, we literally grow up and start to settle down. But our influences become more varied, driven by social, business, sexual, fashion, ambition, activities, media, technology, social status, life stages and even spiritual beliefs. And with the growth of social media, we are under pressure to confirm more to the social norms of the groups we align with. Trouble is, most of us have aligned to a lot more than one tribe.

The values of a society can often be identified by noting which people receive honor, respect or financial reward. Based on that, musicians, actors and athletes are doing pretty well in Western society. The fact some bankers earn more than many celebrities also says a lot.

But here is a haunting thought. CONTINUUM, a new science fiction series from NBC, is about a world where governments have been replaced by corporations. In this world the corruption of greed turns them into dictators and society into a 1984 environment. The last straw is when the corporations decide to execute those that stand in their way and … the rest can be found on the SyFy channel.

On one level, brands that champion moral and ethical values and show leadership – like many Quaker companies did – are to be praised. But those that give into greed, corruption and abuse set a bad example. Which is why CEOs of big brands need to evaluate the real power of their brand to have a positive influence and make a positive change for the better in society.

In a world intoxicated by digital technology and marketing gimmicks, many companies have let their brands slip because when you are distracted  it is easy to forget that the core values of your brand can make  a bigger difference than anything else.

  • Simon Guest

    Chris, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The two most important things that any marketing director or agency need to think about are ‘trust’ and ‘belief’. If the customer believes in the same things (values, reason for being, ethics, approach to business) as the brand, and they trust the brand to do the right thing by them, they will remain loyal to that brand and recommend it to like minded people. In a world where the public is being consistently let-down by people, businesses and politicians, organisations have a great opportunity to re-evaluate who they are and how they operate, and thus create the right conditions to re-engage customers with their brands.

    Business Strategy Director, Maverick.