The other day a reader alerted me to a funny little scam being pulled, surprisingly, by Apple. Apparently in the weeks running up to Christmas, they have been known to book all cargo flights out of China, partially to allow for rushes on their stock, but also to chuck a spanner in the works for their competitors – ensuring they’re going to be the only story in town for that time period.
To what extent this is really their intention I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t be the first time Apple has been accused of ethically dubious practices. For years they’ve taken jibes relating to everything from working conditions, to environmental concerns, to tax; all the usual stuff you’d expect from a global manufacturing megacorp.
You’d think that over the years this kind of consistent criticism would have taken its toll on them in some appreciable fashion. But you know what?
Apple, despite having had far more bad press than your average enterprise, continues to sit pretty not only as a tolerated brand, but a beloved one. No doubt their critics – few as they are – often write their screeds on Apple products, just as those who rail against sweatshop work regularly do so from the comfort a pair of Nikes. This kind of mild hypocrisy is par for the course.
(NB I’m not sure if Nike actually do use sweatshops, but most people think they do, so for the purposes of my article here they may as well).
It’s strange, isn’t it, how in this age of so-called “ethical consumption”, true ethical breaches are so often conveniently overlooked?
Well I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that in reality there is no such thing as a widespread concern over ethical consumption on the part of consumers today. What there is instead is a concern about brand congruency.
What do I mean by this?
In short people do not care whether a brand does something “good” or “bad” in an objective sense. What they care about is whether a brand does something incongruent (or if you prefer inconsistent), with their supposed strategic offering.
Taking the Apple example for a moment, they never promised to be an ethical company, or even a nice one. Sure, they have the usual reams of CSR boilerplate, but that’s just ass-covering: it’s not a central part of what they’re all about, or what they bring to the market. Because of this, consumers will tolerate pretty much anything they do because hey, they’re still holding up their end of the bargain. The same of course applies to Nike. I have no doubt that Nike have also got loads of propaganda about ethical working conditions and the like. And I’m sure they do a pretty good job with it too. But the fact remains that they never promised to be an especially ethical shoe company, so very few people take their ethical behaviour seriously – for better or for worse.
When a business has a clear, powerful strategic offering, that sets the parameters of what it’s able to get away with.
Of course you should strive for ethical behaviour for its own sake, that’s a given. But the fact is that if you do something bad which is outside of the scope of your offering, the market won’t punish you for it. And, furthermore, if you do something good which is out of scope, it won’t reward you for it either!
The only time ethical or unethical behaviour matters in a business sense, is when it reinforces or erodes the offering. A good example of this can be seen with the VW emissions scandal, where they were caught cheating emission controls. Unlike the examples above, this did fly in the face of their positioning, which they’d been bolstering for years with claims of environmental friendliness and all the rest of it – and as a result they suffered huge material and reputational losses.
This “rule of congruence”, as we might call it, clearly doesn’t only apply to ethical missteps. Any “out of scope” behaviour is liable to be interpreted as a broken promise, and will damage the brand, even if it’s harmless or benign. Virgin has seen itself sink from being one of the world’s most beloved companies – certainly up there with Apple and Nike – to being a slightly tacky also-ran, in large part because of their mistake to license the Virgin name to external operators, who of course didn’t use in quite the manner it’s suited for.
Smart businesses get this – for example Amazon. They have their fingers in many pies beyond their central shopping offering, but they are very careful to ensure that these don’t infect or muddle with consumer perception. Most notably their space program, Blue Origin, isn’t in any way obviously tied to the parent company. Other brands wouldn’t do this; they’d just think “space is cool, so if we tie it to our company we’ll be cool too!” – and so would just call it Amazon Space or something. But Amazon know that this would be incongruent, and so could cause them more harm than good.
Rounding off this idea then, I’ll leave you with the ultimate proof of the concept, which is when bad press helps a company because it’s congruent.
My favourite example of this is United Airlines, who made truly horrible headlines a few years back when they essentially assaulted a passenger on one of their planes, dragging him off the aircraft due to overbooking (their own error). You probably couldn’t get a more grim piece of PR if you tried, but you know what happened? Sales went up.
For me the reason for this is obvious. People already saw United as a shitty airline who do shitty things in order to be as cheap and efficient as possible. This appalling customer service then was simply in keeping with that. Sure, a little more extreme than you’d like to see on your flight. But overall in line with something you expect to be efficient and moreover cheap.
Of course, nobody thought “I want to fly on the abusive airline”. But United did deepen their general no-frills status, and in practice that amounts to the same thing.
So ultimately yeah, ethical behaviour doesn’t matter as much as most people think. And it’s certainly not the commercial silver bullet that so many brands seem to think it is.
But even so, let’s try to do it anyway.