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Tiresome platitudes

Some days, especially on LinkedIn, the sheer weight of corporate marketing about “doing good” is depressing.

Heart-sleeves point-scoring is made worse for knowing it has zero impact on sales.

This was demonstrated in a series of revealing studies outlined in The Myth of the Ethical Consumer. They revealed that while consumers profess social consciousness they do not act that way.

Co-author of the studies, Professor Tim Devinney, says that while society appears to demand social responsibility from corporations, customers are “unwilling to pay much of a price to bear that responsibility directly as consumers, investors or employees.”

One experiment showed that when the “ethical” product required the individual to sacrifice some aspect of product functionality – ethics lost in nearly all cases.

Another study showed that in private, and without pressure, less than 1% of consumers chose the same priced ethical product. In public, and with pressure, up to 70% of consumers can be induced to buy the good with ethical values.

These experiments reveal that consumers place almost no value on ethical considerations. Ethical is not in itself a thing we buy.  We only choose ‘ethical’ if it is tied to things we value more highly – such as being seen to conform to a social norm.

What is intriguing about this phenomenon is that the effort and expense of value-signalling is happening without any significant signal from consumers voting with their dollars for socially responsible products.

One out-take is that the sort of ethical positions espoused by companies are not strongly held by many of us. Customers are not really impressed by them.

Another out-take is that if you are determined on an ethical position, your marketing should be directed at customers – to help them in things they are much keener to pay for – like the admiration of friends and networks.

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