Ethical behavior based business and Social Media

stormWhile the old advertising your way to the top of the pile way of doing business isn’t going anywhere too soon business as a whole is facing the very beginnings of what could be a consumer groundswell. There is almost a feeling of an impending perfect storm gathering on the horizon.

Advertising is seeing both a dramatic decline in some businesses and a complete shift of attention in others. Consumers are beginning to admit to themselves that they don’t need to be pulled in by some company’s advertising con job. Businesses are beginning to understand that the consumer isn’t an endless pig trough for them to gorge themselves on.

It is only the beginning mind you as the majority of businesses still expend incredible amounts of money and effort on advertising as a way to get the consumer to think of only them when out buying products, or services. Some are only now beginning to look upon the Internet and social Media as a valid way to attract consumers. For the most part their efforts resemble the stumbling child as it discovers how to walk for the first time.

No, it’s not slick, it’s not marketing and ad people can poke fun at the music as much as they want—it’s a real response. Direct and genuine, whether you agree with it or not. And it was put up more quickly than most marketers could ever dream to produce content. The unofficial “motrin moms” took matters into their own hands, and they were heard by the community, outside the community, the search engines and by Motrin itself.

David Armano on the Motrin Moms fiasco

I have always had a jaded view when it comes to companies trying to insert themselves into the Social Media flow. For the most part their efforts have proven to be laughable at best and disgustingly obvious at worst. However I don’t think that their efforts are helped in the least by the lynch-mob mentality that can flare up around any company’s efforts that might be – shall we say – a little screwed up.

Rather than gently suggesting to the company that have stumbled that there might be a better way to accomplish what they were trying to do, the self-righteous social media mavens start calling FAIL. Not happy with that the rallying call goes out for heads to roll and how companies just don’t get it.

So businesses are increasingly facing an onslaught in all directions in the way that they have done business for as long as we can remember. The rules are changing and for a lot of companies it is becoming nothing more than clutching at straws – any straw that will help them move forward in this changing world.

Some businesses though, and especially newer ones, are going one step further and basically re-inventing the how and why of how business is done in the first place. Jeff Jarvis referred to it as values based in his post where he mentions a company called Green Mountain Coffee and how they are integrating their values with their business operations.

For Green Mountain this means

…. “put their money where their values are” by donating 5% of their pre-tax earnings to social and environmental causes. Green Mountain has also long been an advocate of high quality, farmer friendly, Fair Trade coffee…it now seems that Fair Trade coffee is gaining more traction in the minds of consumers.

Jeff mentions, along with Green Mountain, companies like Zappos and Stonyfield Farms Yogurt as examples of companies that basing their business around social ethics and how that affects their use of advertising. Ethics that a growing number of companies are making a cornerstone of their consumer outreach programs.

Where companies like McDonald’s, Starbucks, drug companies like Glaxo Smith Klien and other global brands will spend millions upon millions through traditional style advertising, whether it be on the web or more traditional mediums, these upstart companies actually spend very little. Zappos for example is well known for its use of Twitter to such an extent that some would suggest the company has written the book on corporate use of the service.

That’s not always a drive to the lowest price but often is a drive toward the best value and a value that allows a consumer to feel that they’re making the right choice for their circumstance. … Making sure that a consumer understands the value of, say, Fair-Trade-Certified coffee and everything that goes into that also helps them feel good about their purchase. Even in difficult economic times, we’re experiencing rapid growth in that part of our business. Fair-Trade coffee now represents a third of our total volume. That is up about 5% vs. this time last year.
- T.J. Whalen [Green Mountain Coffee] in AdAge interview

When it comes to companies like Green Mountain or Zappos they have made their ethics, their corporate behavior the face that consumers see or think about when hear those names, or think about the types of products these companies sell. Rather than spending those millions of dollars on advertising that especially in terms of the web are proving to be producing questionable results these new ethical behavior based companies are reaching out to consumers. Reaching out as an equal that can help them feel better about where they are spending money for products, or services, that they need or want.

It is no longer a world where a million dollar ad that flashes by in 30 seconds, or less, is going to bring consumers to your business, web or brick and mortar. People are starting to want to know what their money is buying besides just a product or service. Is it being used to subsidize child labor in third world sweatshops? Is it being used to increase the profit margins of companies that are polluting our world without any concern for the consequences?

Prior to the Internet, and more importantly Social Media there really was only one way to get your message into the hands of consumers. It was the age of big budget advertising campaigns where getting big splashy ads in front as many eyeballs as possible was the key to success. Companies controlled the message and little thought was given to what the consumers thought, or wanted. After all it wasn’t like there was anywhere else for them to go to find out about companies and their products.

In my last book and what I hope will be my next one, I say that when the internet makes price transparent and competition on price thus all but impossible, and when you sell commodity products (as P&G sort of does) then one frontier for competition is virtue: more responsible products, more responsible companies. Given the choice of two toilet papers, maybe you’ll take the one that’s sustainable from the company you trust.
- Jeff Jarvis – Decency is the new ad

The Internet changed that and then social media changed it even more because suddenly those millions of consumers suddenly had a voice. If they didn’t like your product you heard about it. If they didn’t like how you were doing business you heard about it – loudly. If you treated your customers badly you would find yourself battling the bushfires of angry consumers like you never had to before.

As much as this new world of Social Media may have turned the tables on the way companies were use to doing business it also gave companies with very little money a chance to get in front of all those dissatisfied consumers. It gave them a chance to build companies around ideals and concepts that were foreign to the established business world. It gave the consumer a chance to be a part of that business at a core level.

However I also think that this new world of doing business transfers a new responsibility onto the consumer. There has to be an understanding that not all businesses have grasped this new idea of being truly ethical in their behavior and how they translate that to their consumer outreach using social media. There are going to be mistakes made, on both sides of the conversation. Which means those of us in the social media trenches can’t always be calling out the lynch-mob at every misstep made.

old-globe We need to understand that just as this is all new territory for us it is even newer for the companies trying hard to make their way in this new business environment. This means that when they do misstep that we reach out to them and explain why we think what they are doing isn’t the way we want to be included in the new one-to-one business relationship. We need to be patient and helpful – no-one is helped when we carry around the head of some business who didn’t quite get it like some sort of trophy.

Social Media is a great thing. Businesses with a real social conscience is a great thing. Consumers being included as a part of that corporate ethical behavior is a great thing. What was once a one-way street of advertising driven business is slowly turning into a two-way street of doing business and being a consumer where ethics and morality are becoming a cornerstone.

But this is still the early days and we have a long way to go.

Patience and understanding is what we need – we’ll get there.

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  1. 07/06/09 at 7:59

    An excellent post about the ground swell of consumers taking control of marketing messages which is forcing companies to be more socially responsible.