Archive for the ‘brands’ Category

How Should Companies Memorialize 9/11?

The day has passed, but it’s a question that’s sure to arise again — just under a year from now, and the year after that, and so on.

What can, or should, businesses do with regard to a relatively recent tragic event like 9/11? The cultural significance of an event like 9/11 is hard for anyone to ignore, especially on the tenth anniversary of that fateful day. And companies thrive on raising their profiles, a feat that can most readily be accomplished by riding the coattails of cultural significance. But when the culturally-significant event in question is a tragic one, corporations need to tread carefully.

This general topic can be split into two more specific questions:
1) Can or should companies use references to an event like 9/11 in their advertising?
2) Can or should companies do something to memorialize such events?

The pure advertising question seems easy. Using references to 9/11 in ads is tacky, if not outright unethical. (For some examples, see this nice slideshow by Jim Edwards for Bnet: “10 Advertisers Exploiting the Sept. 11 Attacks to Push Their Brands”.) Profiting from other people’s pain and grief just isn’t a socially-constructive business strategy.

The problem of course is that it’s hard to separate questions 1 and 2. Naturally, any effort on the part of a company to memorialize an event is likely to be seen as an attempt by that company to raise its own profile.

But memorializing an event like 9/11 in some way seems unobjectionable, and perhaps even obligatory. The hard question is what form such memorializing should take. The best ways, perhaps, are the small-scale and personal ones. Giving employees time off work to attend memorial services, for example. The same principle applies to expressions of sentiment: small and local seems best. A simple sign on your front window that says “Never Forget 9/11″ seems to make the point best — better than, say, splashing that same slogan across millions of product packages — and is much less liable to engender suspicions that the expression of sentiment is self-serving.

As an final point, notice that this is precisely the kind of question for which the term “corporate citizenship” provides the right fulcrum. Some people try to use that term to cover all questions of corporate right-and-wrong , but that’s a mistake. Not all obligations or rights are rooted in a weighty concept like citizenship. But this one is. How we respond to national and international tragedies is clearly an issue of citizenship, in the full political sense of that word, the sense that implies a set of rights and responsibilities related to participation in public life. An alternative word like “sustainability,” which some people take to encompass all ethical questions, just doesn’t cut it here. How companies choose to respond to the anniversary of an event like 9/11 says a lot about how they see themselves as corporate citizens, as participating members of a still-grieving community.

Pepsi Under Pressure

It’s not easy selling carbonated sugar-water. Or rather, the selling part is all too easy. The hard part is steering a course between the conflicting desires of shareholders and activists. Shareholders want profits. That means selling more of high-profit-margin products like Pepsi and Doritos. Activists want companies to stop pushing unhealthy products like Pepsi and Doritos, and to focus on healthier — but less profitable — products.

See this story, by Mike Esterl and Valerie Bauerlein, for the WSJ: PepsiCo Wakes Up and Smells the Cola

…The snack-food and beverage giant is launching the first new advertising campaign for its flagship Pepsi-Cola in three years—offering one of the most visible signs PepsiCo is throwing new weight behind its biggest brand after it sank to No. 3 in U.S. soda sales last year, trailing not only Coke but Diet Coke….

When industry market share numbers came out in March, showing Pepsi-Cola slipped to No. 3, analysts quickly accused PepsiCo—and Chairman and Chief Executive Indra Nooyi—of taking their eyes off the company’s biggest brand….

There’s a lesson here for activists who think that reforming corporate behaviour is a simple matter of willpower, that companies can shift to healthier foods (or to less-violent video games) if only they had the guts to try it. Shifting your business practices in a way not endorsed by consumers is, well, a recipe for disaster.

Then again, maybe that’s a pretty decent outcome, from an activist’s point of view.

What’s the long-term prognosis? An ebb and flow of corporate strategy, in response to a range of pressures. Activists will win a few battles, as well as surely losing a few. Forcing companies to do what you want means forcing consumers to consume what you want. Because as everyone in business knows, while it’s simply not true that “the customer is always right,” it surely is true that the customer is always the customer.

Should a Catholic Charity Take Money from Hooters?

This is twice in two weeks that I’ve blogged about Hooters. I swear it’s a coincidence.

From MSNBC: Catholic charity says ‘no’ to Hooters fundraiser

St. Patrick Center, a Catholic charity that provides assistance to homeless people, has canceled a Thursday fundraising “Dine and Donate” event with a downtown Hooters restaurant after drawing complaints that such a collaboration wasn’t in keeping with the Christian faith….

This is not exactly an isolated incident. Charities of all kinds have to decide, on a pretty much constant basis, who they’ll accept money from and who they want to associate with. In some cases, the struggle is an internal one; in other cases, it’s the result of external criticism. (Just look at the criticism UNICEF faced for making a deal with Cadbury.)

It’s worth pointing out that a charity faces two different issues, here. One is simply the source of money. A charity might consider money from certain sources as ill-gotten gains. In such cases, the money from certain sources is going to be unwelcome, even if donated very discretely. In other cases, the issue is publicity. Some charities might be willing to take money from anyone, in principle, but worry about the impact of having their name associated with — well, with Hooters for example. These two issues (dirty money and a dirty reputation) are separable, at least in principle. But secrets are pretty hard to keep secret, especially in an era in which transparency is valued and in which corporate donors are relatively eager to publicize their good deeds to spit-shine their image. So really, the key concern is liable to be reputation.

And in terms of reputation, the anything-goes strategy seemingly suggested by some idealists is likely to be fatal to just about any charity. Those who think it’s “obvious” that St. Patrick Center, for example, should be happy and eager to take Hooters’ money should ask themselves: if Hooters is OK, how about the local strip club? How about a hardcore porn magazine? I’m not at all saying those various enterprises are all alike, in all morally-relevant ways. I’m just pointing out that most people will see some place where they would like a line drawn. And ethics bleeds into prudence here. Most charities have reputation and goodwill as their only real capital. A company that makes cars can recover from scandal by, well, making good cars. You don’t have to love the company to love the cars. But an organization whose only real asset is its reputation — well, sully the reputation and you’re pretty much sunk.

But then, neither can your typical cash-strapped charity afford to be too prissy about sources of cash. Look too closely at any donor and you’re very likely to find skeletons in the closet.


Thanks to Tara Ceranic for showing me this story.

Ethics on Business Magazine Websites

I’ll start by highlighting the obvious conflict of interest, here: my blog is carried on the website of Canadian Business magazine. In this blog entry, I effectively congratulate CB for highlighting ethics. So this is not an unbiased blog entry, but hopefully the facts I present here speak for themselves and stand on their own.

Ethics in business is clearly a hot topic these days, whether discussed using the word “ethics” itself or one of the mushier terms like “CSR” or “sustainability” or “corporate citizenship.” Even those who are cynical about the topic cannot deny that it is an important topic.

But here’s an interesting fact. At time of writing, only two major business magazines (Canadian Business and Fast Company) feature ethics and/or CSR on the front page of their websites. The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week do not.

Here’s slightly more detail:

  • Canadian Business has both Ethics and CSR listed on the front page.
  • Fast Company has a link called Ethonomics on its front page (right at the top), which leads to a section featuring a pretty steady stream of social responsibility blog postings.
  • Forbes has a CSR blog but it is very hard to find if you start from the site’s main page. You need to click on “Leadership” (not at all obvious) and then you’ll see the link in the lower-right of the Leadership page.
  • The Economist has nothing ethics- or CSR-related on its main page, though to its credit The Economist does tackle relevant topics pretty frequently. (For an older example, see The Good Company.)
  • Fortune likewise has nothing on their main page (though if you click on the “Leadership” link, you get taken — oddly — to their Management page, which currently features a piece on philanthropy.)
  • Business Week likewise does nothing to feature CSR or ethics.

So, what do you think? Why are business magazines, and in particular their websites, so slow on the uptake? Is it lack of interest, lack of access to good content, or both, or something else?

Naomi vs Cadbury

Racism is one of the last things any company wants to be accused of. Of all the kinds of corporate wrongdoing, racism is one of the hardest to defend against. For one thing, there’s not much “on the other hand.” It’s not like child labour, where you can say yeah, it’s unfortunate, but on the other hand these kids really do need the income. Racism is just bad, with no upside. The other problem is that racism (or at least accusations of same) can arise without anyone having racist intentions, let alone racist corporate policies.

See, for example, this story, by Mark Sweney for The Guardian: Cadbury apologises to Naomi Campbell over ‘racist’ ad:

Confectionery giant Cadbury has apologised to Naomi Campbell after the supermodel claimed an advert comparing her to one of its chocolate bars was racist.

The advert for Cadbury’s Bliss range of Dairy Milk chocolate bars used the strapline “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town”….

Now, the ad isn’t necessarily racist. Campbell certainly is a diva (in the negative sense of that word) regardless of her skin colour. The word carries connotations of success, popularity, and glamour, as well as (more recently, I think) more than a touch of spoiled brattiness. Campbell certainly fits the bill, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if any ad using the word “diva”, regardless of what it is advertising, referred to her. And, as a matter of logic, to say that both Campbell and a chocolate bar are in the same category (i.e., “diva”) is not to say that Campbell herself is a chocolate bar. So I suspect the intention probably wasn’t racist, even in a passive, thoughtless way. But who knows what the ad’s makers were thinking? Maybe it really was a reference to ‘chocolatey skin,’ the kind of reference that, like many other racial terms or allusions, is probably best left for self-referential use by members of the relevant groups. Anyway, the perception that the ad was racist is there, and that’s enough: enough both to result in genuinely hurt feelings and to generate a serious PR problem. So yes, it’s good that Cadbury retracted the ads.

You’ve got to wonder how it is that all the smart people at Cadbury (including their PR department) and at their ad agency (Fallon), didn’t see this coming. Surely someone there must have realized that this is dangerous turf. Why didn’t someone raise a red flag? Is the “can-do” attitude there so strong that no one had the sense to say “wait a minute”? One way or the other, this case raises issues about corporate culture, whether in terms empowering employees to speak up, or, as Campbell herself rightly suggests, in terms of fostering diversity (of all kinds) at the level of senior management.

Finally, it must be somewhat galling for Cabury to be lectured to by Naomi Campbell, queen of disreputable behaviour. Ms Campbell’s own history of questionable behaviour doesn’t rob her critique of its force, but I guess it does make her something of an expert on the offering and timing of public apologies.

Should Celebrities Regret Singing for Gadhafi’s Family?

I blogged nearly two weeks ago about the Ethics of Doing Business in Libya. The concern there was about the ethics of involvement in Libya by, well, “businesses” in the traditional, i.e., corporate, sense of that word. But the controversy that emerged short after that, and that continues still, concerns high-profile members of the entertainment business — celebrities like Usher, 50 Cent, and Mariah Carey. Basically, it has come to light that a whole fistful of such stars have, at various times, done private concerts for members of the Gadhafi family. And now, in light of the continuing violence in Libya, most of those stars are expressing regret and doing things like donating the money to charity. (For details, see Public consequences of pop stars’ private gigs, by By Reed Johnson and Rick Rojas for the Los Angeles Times.)

A few people have pointed out that the timing of the celebs’ crisis of conscience is just a little bit off. Libya has been a dictatorship for decades, and its leader has been a vicious madman just as long. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote on his blog at Reason, “Even assuming Qaddafi is so toxic you can’t with sound conscience take his dinars, that didn’t just become the case a few weeks ago.” If it’s right to give the money back now, it was likely wrong to take it in the first place.

But we can also question whether anyone does, or should, give much of a hoot over where these celebs sing, or for whom. The LA Times quotes Sting — a star with a reputation for charity work and activism — as defending having sung for the daughter of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov:

Sting addressed criticism saying he was “well aware of the Uzbek president’s appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment. I made the decision to play there in spite of that.” He added, “I have come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counterproductive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular.”

The man has a point. Though it may sound like a self-interested argument, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.

(Cavanaugh’s blog entry has a wonderful quote from, of all people, Adolf Hitler, who shrugged off artists behaving in ways that might have taken by him to be treasonous: “I don’t take any of that seriously. We should never judge artists by their political views. The imagination they need for their work deprives them of the ability to think in realistic terms.”)

But this leads me wonder: just what is the objection to singers singing for dictators? Is the money the problem, or is it having sung for (or more generally having done business with, or having provided a service for) an evil man’s family? Consider: if the money really is the problem — i.e., if this really is a case of filthy lucre — then donating the money to charity really does utterly absolve the stars in question of any blame. Or at least it would if the timing weren’t so questionable. Singing for free would also be OK. Indeed, if the money is all that matters, then stars might have a positive obligation to sing for wealthy tyrants and give the money to charity. After all, what could be better than squeezing a few million out of a mad dictator’s family in order to do something good with it? And if singing for free (or singing for money and donating it to charity) isn’t OK, then that seems to imply that the money isn’t the problem either.

Certifying Virtue

Kenan Institute for EthicsTwo weeks ago I was at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, in part to participate in a panel discussion called “Certifying Virtue.” The panel was basically about the challenges faced by various attempts to certify particular consumer goods as having been ethically produced.

My excellent co-panelists were Greg Dees (director of Duke’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship) and Tim Büthe (Assistant Professor in Duke’s Political Science department). The panel was organized and moderated by Kenan’s Lou Brown.

My own comments focused on:

  • The large number of value-dimensions along which different consumers might want assurances about the things they buy.
  • The epistemic problems involved in figuring out how to measure the things you might want to certify (e.g., measuring “environmental impact”).
  • The moral problem that arises when 2 or more desirable characteristics conflict (e.g., “wild” vs “organic” salmon — you might want both, but no one fish can be both wild and organic.)
  • The role of brands and certification schemes as “value-alignment” mechanisms, helping consumers find producers with whom they want to do business.

The panel was videorecorded, and the resulting 90-minute video is here, on YouTube: Certifying Virtue

HuffPo, AOL and the Ethics of Unpaid Labour

AOL bought the Huffington Post this week. Now, many of HuffPo’s volunteer bloggers are up in arms, accusing the left-leaning news-and-aggregation site of two related crimes: selling out to a (presumably) evil corporate media giant, and failing to share the wealth with thousands of volunteer bloggers who, over the years, have contributed probably millions of words to HuffPo’s archive of content.

But criticism was not limited to the volunteer bloggers themselves. Tim Rutton, of the LA Times, wrote:

To grasp its business model, though, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates….

Adbusters — the slightly-past-its-best-before-date organization whose sole purpose is to bash capitalism and consumerism — put it this way:

Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp….

On the face of it, this sounds like a strong criticism. Use unpaid labour to build a truly massive (and profitable) online presence. Keep that unpaid labour in the fold by espousing values they believe in. And then sell out for hundreds of millions to a corporation that almost certainly could not care less about the aforementioned values. It really does sound tantamount to slavery, with a touch of ideological treason thrown in for good measure. But to understand this better, we need to know a little more about the economics of blogging. As a good starting point, see this piece by stats guru Nate Silver: The Economics of Blogging and The Huffington Post

The fact is, however, that sentiments like [the LA Times's] Mr. Rutten’s reflect a misunderstanding of The Huffington Post’s business model. Although The Huffington Post does not pay those who volunteer to write blogs for it, this content represents only a small share of its traffic. And, to put it bluntly, many of those blog posts aren’t worth very much….

Silver goes on to be much more specific, calculating the likely dollar value of the contribution of the average volunteer HuffPo Blogger.

The point is that for something over 99% of bloggers, blogging is a hobby. The contribution of most HuffPo bloggers to the website’s success is minimal. Those thousands of volunteer bloggers on whose “backs” HuffPo was supposedly built were likely more important as audience than as generators of content. Should the volunteer bloggers feel jilted? I’m reminded of a commercial from a few years back, in which a mom consoles her 8-year-old boy whose team just lost a game of soccer or hockey or something. “Did you try your hardest?”, asks the mom. “And did you have a good time? That’s all that really matters.”

Of course, if the volunteer bloggers are worried about the integrity of HuffPo’s editorial voice, you would think they would be somewhat consoled by the fact that Arianna Huffington is retaining the reins in that regard, and in fact will be gaining the key editorial role at AOL as a whole. But then, that’s reason why the rest of us should be deeply concerned, given Huffington’s penchant for featuring dangerously bad pieces related to things like healthcare, including some that are the intellectual equivalent of evolution denial.

Death by Pizza Delivery: Domino’s Korea

During most of the 80’s (starting in 1984), customers of Domino’s Pizza in the U.S. enjoyed the benefits of a catchy promise of speedy delivery: Domino’s promised to deliver your pizza in “30 Minutes Or It’s Free.” The only problem: soon after the slogan was introduced, a rise in deaths due to accidents involving Domino’s drivers was noted. The assumption was that drivers were facing pressure to make good on the promise, and were therefore driving faster, which meant they were more likely to have accidents, some of which were fatal. Lawsuits ensued. Big ones. As a result, the “30 Minute” delivery promise ended back in 1991, in the U.S. But apparently the same can’t be said for Domino’s Korea.

Here’s the story, by blogger Lee Yoo Eun, blogging at Global Voices: South Korea: Backlash After ‘30 Minute’ Pizza Delivery Death

A popular Domino’s Pizza marketing strategy promising pizza delivery within 30 minutes of an order has met with a public backlash in South Korea, following the deaths of several young delivery personnel.

The Young Union, the union For Occupational and Environmental Health (FOEC) and several labor unions held a press conference on 8 February, 2011, in front of Domino’s Pizza’s headquarters in South Korean capital Seoul, pressuring the company to abolish the ‘30 Minute’ delivery system….

Here’s another version of the story, from the Korea Times: Quick delivery jeopardizes drivers.

In often discuss the story of “30 Minutes or It’s Free,” as it played out in the U.S., in my business ethics class. I use the case to illustrate 3 key points:

  1. A simple business decision can have large and unforeseen consequences, ones that result in a major ethical challenge for a company. In this case, a simple (and frankly brilliant) marketing slogan resulted in Domino’s executives being called killers and the company facing multi-million dollar lawsuits.
  2. The ethical thing to do is not always obvious. We spend a lot of time chastising companies for bad behaviour, but in at least some cases it is genuinely difficult to know what to do. In the Domino’s case, my students are typically unified in the opinion that something had to be done to reduce the rate of accident-related deaths involving Domino’s drivers, but they’re typically deeply divided on a) how far the company needs to go and b) just what strategy they should adopt.
  3. Putting an ethical decision into action can be very difficult. Back in the late 80’s, there were several thousand Domino’s pizza franchises in the U.S., and tens of thousands of drivers. Any decision made by Head Office was going to have to be implemented by all those franchisees and acted on by all those drivers. Making that sort of thing happen is anything but straightforward.

As for Domino’s Korea — frankly I’m stunned to find out that the people in charge of the Domino’s brand haven’t done more to make sure that a lesson learned 20 years ago, at great expense, is reflected in their international operations.

Groupon Super Bowl Ad: Unethical

A collective gasp could be heard at one particular moment last night during the Super Bowl. No, I’m not talking about the gasp following Nick Collins’ 37 yard touchdown run in the first quarter. I’m talking about the gasp that issued at the punchline of the now-infamous Groupon.com commercial featuring Timothy Hutton.

You can see the 30-second spot here, on YouTube: Groupon – Tibet

And here’s the entire transcript:

“Mountainous Tibet — one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought at Groupon.com we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.”

Immediately following the commercial’s appearance, Twitter lit up with comments about how “offensive” and “tasteless” the Groupon.com commercial was. Media outlets today have been abuzz with criticism and commentary. The headlines tell the tale. According to NBC Chicago: “Groupon Super Bowl Ad Not a Good Deal”. CNN Money.com‘s headline was “Groupon spends big on controversial (tasteless?) Super Bowl spots”. Time asks: “And the Most Offensive Super Bowl Ad Goes To: Groupon?”

But the ad was more than just tasteless. It was unethical. To recruit — and then trivialize — the plight of the people of Tibet to sell Groupon’s services shows a jaw-dropping level of disrespect. And while we often think of disrespect as a matter of bad manners, showing suitable respect for other humans’ basic needs and interets is a core moral principle.

It’s also worth pointing out that the commercial played, perhaps unintentionally, on the unfortunate fact that, for many westerners, complex Asian societies are often most closely associated with exotic dinner fare. Yes, yes, Tibet is exotic and troubled. But hey, they make a yummy curry!

Who knows just what the fallout will be? There have been predictions that Groupon will lose business over this — it’s been suggested that the company may have found the limit of the notion that “there’s no such thing as bad PR.” And, predictably, there have already been calls for a boycott of Groupon.com. Timothy Hutton (once an Academy Award winner) will likely have to go into the spokesperson’s equivalent of rehab, perhaps by working with a pro-Tibet charity of some sort.

Of course, some will cling to the notion that Groupon.com intended all this — that they knew the ad would be controversial, and were aiming directly at the enormous amount of free media coverage they’re now getting. Maybe that’s true. But it was a helluva gamble to take. And, if it was a gamble, it was a gamble that treated the people of Tibet as just another Asian trinket to be tossed in among the poker chips.
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Addition:
It’s been pointed out to me (by @Changents on Twitter) that Groupon is apparently donating money to the causes featured in its commercials. See: http://savethemoney.groupon.com/. I’m not at all sure that that’s sufficient to overcome the worries discussed above, especially given that the disrespectful commercials is all that most people will see or know about. What do you think?

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