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Marketing for the good of society
Concerns about sustainability, the future of the planet, binge drinking and obesity are at the heart of
private and public debate. Companies like Gap, Tesco and Primark have all been embarrassed by
media headlines which stated that they sourced products from suppliers with unethical practices.
Corporate social responsibility has become a key focus in every respectable company’s business
strategy. Although some might argue that this is just another marketing attempt to win over ethically
minded consumers, the growing interest in ethical business means that companies must take it
seriously if they want to survive.
According to Dr Anne Smith, Reader in Marketing at the OU Business School, there is a growing
recognition that social marketing has a role to play in achieving a wide range of social goals. She
explains: “Marketing principles are being used to influence customers to reject certain behaviours
and accept those that will benefit individuals and society as a whole. Social marketing rests on the
principle that it promotes social good, and in particular the areas of improving health and protecting
the environment.”
One of the key tasks of social marketers is to develop effective messages which provide individuals
with the information required to achieve behavioural change. A wide range of communications
channels are available, and it is important that these deliver consistent messages.
Marketing is based on giving customers what they want, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily good
for them or the environment. Dr Fiona Harris, Lecturer in Management at the OU Business School,
says: “Marketing is the public face of organisations and often bears the brunt of criticism resulting
from any shortcomings in an organisation’s product.” Confectioners for example, can get blamed for
the escalating obesity problems. Rather than taking responsibility for their own consumption, some
consumers seek some external form of governance on how they are targeted in advertising
So if social marketing aims to promote what is good for society, but companies also have to be
careful about marketing products and services that may be perceived as being harmful, where do
they draw the line?
Dr Harris explains: “It is a shared responsibility, but shoppers don’t always have access to all the
information about where products are sourced and exactly what they contain.”
The number and range of ethical products are steadily increasing as consumers’ interest in the
environment and how products are sourced rises. According to the Cooperative Bank’s Ethical
Consumerism Report, published in 2006, ethical clothing sales rose by 26 per cent to £29 million in
2005. Spending on personal products, such as humane cosmetics and eco-fashion, increased by
almost 5 per cent to approximately £1.3 billion. Blue chip companies like Marks and Spencer and
Topshop have raised consumer awareness of fair trade and organic ranges through their
advertising campaigns.
Corporate social responsibility is based on the inevitability that organisations have social as well as
economic consequences, and they can’t shy away from social responsibility. Some organisations
have a long tradition of good citizenship in the countries they operate in. They often provide
financial support for good causes, be it sport or arts sponsorships or investment in deprived
communities. But a company is judged on the whole business activity, not simply donations or
community investment.
The media is usually very quick off the mark to publicise any unsavoury practices and information
on how companies conduct their business across the globe is available. The choice ultimately lies
with consumers, who should consider how much of a premium they are willing to pay for goods and
services that offer some guarantee of the conditions under which they were produced, and therefore
peace of mind.
Dr Fiona Harris and Dr Anne Smith are course chairs for the OU Business School’s new Marketing
and Society course, with its first presentation in May 2008.