Is there a need for ethics in branding?

(Excerpt from the doctoral thesis “Visual identity sources for Romania’s country brand,” author Bogdan Brînzaș)

Brands are a symbolic, intangible construct, born in their modern sense from the need to sell, be it products and services, organizations or destinations. Unfortunately, the obsession with selling has led in the modern era to extreme attitudes on the part of those interested in selling, using visible or subtle commercial messages and discourses to induce needs. These attitudes have profound repercussions in society, interpersonal relations, architecture and urban planning:
“Transparency, lightness, serenity and openness are integrated into the extensive props of consumption pleasures. The negative aspects, quantifiable in terms of indebtedness, stress, ecological impact or the polarization of social classes, are thus conveniently hidden.” (Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Dover Publications, f.l., 1994), p.45-46)

This is where the discussion of the pros and cons of brands comes in; it started many years ago and is very well summarized in the book No logo by the Canadian author Naomi Klein, which deals distinctly with the repercussions and impact of commercial strategies of corporations and brands on people’s lives. The author’s critique touches on three primary levels of the influence of brands in society: the narrowing of the space for choice, thought and movement (No space), the narrowing of options (No choice), the disappearance of jobs (No jobs) and finally, the No logo chapter that puts in discuss the various anti-consumerism or anti-advertising movements and methods. Klein’s main accusation is that brands have migrated from identifying products and associating them with a manufacturer to selling a way of life and inducing false needs about it, going so far as to induce attitudinal and social change with repercussions including – and starting – among the young population very susceptible, easily influenced and permissive to new ideas and concepts. It is certain that the symbolic and the imaginary dominate the discourse of brands as it results from their evolution, from the different definitions given over time and from the modus operandi used by any entity that wants to sell a product or service.

From here to the formulation and increasingly accentuated appearance in the public discourse of an ethical dimension regarding brands was a big step made after decades of evolution of society as a whole and the field. Our consumer-oriented society is often perceived as incompatible with the words’ ethical’ and ‘sustainable’. Why? We consume too much. We buy things we don’t need. We manufacture and purchase food and items that are harmful to people, animals and the environment; most of the time, we are unaware of it. So when we notice that global fast food chains have been selling unhealthy products for years or big names are marketing cosmetics with toxic ingredients, we might question whether branding and marketing are really such good and handy tools. And from here comes a fundamental question: are brands bad for society? And the answer is: it depends. A brand in itself is neither good nor bad. It’s like casting an anathema on a hammer, a firearm, or a computer. Each has its role, and the tool’s functionality is precisely determined. How we use them and whether we divert them from their original purpose matters.

However, the values, strategies and actions of the company, organization or person behind it can influence the perception as good or bad, ethical or unethical. By ethical brands, we mean those created by companies that really care about the society they belong to, its laws and its living beings. Of course, we are not talking about companies that create this “front” to get new customers or some competitive advantage. An ethical brand is, therefore, directly linked to the product and the activities behind its concept. Furthermore, an ethical brand should not harm the public good; on the contrary, it should contribute to or help promote general well-being. So, we can briefly define, by main characteristics, an ethical brand: it must act morally; behaves with integrity, honesty and responsibility; takes into account economic, social and environmental responsibilities; creates added value for the company, but also for customers and other direct stakeholders (local community, for example).