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The dangers of moral supremacy in marketing

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Many companies like to suggest that they are particularly virtuous, correct and progressive by playing with the ideology of the moment – be it the adoption of LGBTQ+, the promotion of environmental sustainability and the support for or opposition to the pandemic narrative.

While adopting socio-political messaging can be a new way to generate awareness and build loyalty for a brand, it also risks alienating a share of the company’s customers – particularly when it sends the message that the company’s perspective is superior to that of society at large.

3 risks of moral supremacy

Moral superiority comes with several risks to a company’s marketing strategy, including:

The dilution of the corporate brand

Companies risk focussing on the ‘issue of the day’ over their long-term core values.

Reacting to hot news items, controversy, and political causes can lower the effectiveness of a marketing message when a brand:

  • becomes an ambassador for a single, specific cause more so than for its products, services and contribution to the market
  • is diluted or sacrifices its values on the altar of striving to appeal to ‘the masses’ over its best-matched customer groups
  • or faces considerable competition in its reaction to socio-political events to the point where it becomes less and less memorable because everyone in the market is playing the same marketing game.

The alienation of customers

When a company shares a socio-political message in its marketing that reduces trust among prospects and customers who have different personal or political beliefs.

For example, public calls to get the Covid vaccine certainly appealed to a portion of most companies’ customers between 2020 and 2022. However, they did not sit well with those who opposed vaccination for personal, religious or health reasons.

Similarly, endorsement of or opposition to a political party or social cause may alienate a fraction of a company’s customer base. Both existing and prospective customers may look elsewhere for business and prefer to work with companies that adopt a more neutral position.

We’ve seen an extreme side of this in the backlash against Bud Light, an American beer brand that saw its sales dip after collaborating with a transgender influencer on social media. Clearly, the partnership with a transgender influencer did not sit well with a part of its customer base, resulting in a widespread boycott.

The backlash against Bud Light shows how risky advertising can be when it flirts with a socio-political cause. After all, prospects and customers may like they are not ‘represented’, ‘wanted’ and ‘heard’ and no longer feel part of a group of people who think like them.

Socio-political messaging, regardless of how subtle and careful it is executed, may destroy a sense of belonging and break down the trusting relationship customers have or had with a brand.

Disastrous consequences when social values or political tides change

Cultural norms and political standards can change dramatically over time. For example, in the 1960s, immigration was not as polarising and divisive as it is in the US today, as political attention focussed more on the Vietnam war and civil rights movements.

Throughout this period, traditional family roles were also much more significant than they are now. In fact, same-sex marriage had been banned in many states until 2015, when a court ruling overturned the existing law.

Therefore, what was once deemed politically correct or of good moral standing may, just a few years from now, be considered a flaw of character or a grave mistake.

It is precisely because of this whimsical nature of social values that moral supremacy can backfire in a company’s marketing strategy. Future values and political tides can call the social contribution of whole companies into question – particularly when political systems collapse and previous proponents of the government are forced to cease operations.

Why it might be better to avoid moral superiority in your marketing

Customers resonate with a brand or company because they (expect to) derive value from the company’s products.

They buy a razor, because they want to shave – not because they want to support women’s rights. They buy a phone, because they want to use it to access the Internet, text and call their friend, take a picture of the sunset on the beach or pay for things online.

This functional value trumps politics. After all, if people just wanted political statements, they would be content watching politicians, not interacting with your business.

The value of ‘belief confirmation’ and the sense of belonging that comes with a socio-political message is usually smaller than the utilitarian value of the product.

This is because moral superiority doesn’t meet basic needs. As many marketers have had to learn the hard way, it doesn’t put food on the table, repair a broken roof or mend a car for the customer. Sure, socio-political messaging can be a complementary to such services, but it is not a replacement for their economic benefits.

People buy your product, not your politics. People pay for value.

So, what can companies do to avoid moral supremacy in their marketing?

1. Develop and live by a set of long-term values

A set of clearly-defined core values can help a business navigate complex decisions and guide marketers in creating and publishing content that serves the overall goal of the company.

For example, if politeness and respect are core values in a business, the marketer would ideally confirm that rude, disrespectful behaviour is not evident in the company’s communications.

Similarly, a business that values open-mindedness might avoid taking a firm, irrevocable stance on environmental activism – so as to not alienate its customers, and see how such activism develops over time – whereas companies that values harmony with nature, might position itself more clearly in such matters without coming across as condescending.

These values can act as guidance as to what level of socio-political messaging would be beneficial to or in contradiction with a company’s overarching goals.

2. Be judicious about what socio-political causes to respond to

An e-mobility company can probably endorse the shift to renewable energy quite naturally, without alienating its customer base, this might be tougher for a company that invests heavily in industrial production whose energy needs cannot yet be sustained by wind and solar power alone.

Similarly, a company selling mobile phones can probably endorse political movements and social causes that give ‘less privileged communities’ access to online services without stirring up controversy, while promotion of political causes unrelated to its core offering e.g. support for feminism, environmental activism, or a political party may alienate a section of its target audience.

Therefore, companies that wish to include socio-political messaging in their marketing may benefit from leaning into those causes that align quite naturally with the values and product offering of their overall brand.

Support of a few well-placed initiatives may also be preferred over overcommitting to a large number of communities or socio-political causes. For example, a tampon manufacturer may benefit more from working with a single charity on ‘menstruation awareness’ than spreading itself thin over multiple organisations.

Similarly, a construction company may prefer to focus on a single socio-political cause, such as the sourcing of raw materials at minimal environmental cost, rather than broadening its marketing message to also include human rights concerns, female equality and political developments in the local construction market.

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