One of my long-term obsessions is the misrepresentation of many products and services as ‘green’, ‘ethical’, ‘sustainable’ etc. I worked for many years at one of the world’s leading ethical brands, where documentation of claims, copy approval processes and constant attention to the sustainability credentials of inputs and processes was in the DNA of everything we did. Now that my attention has moved to Asian brands, I am stunned at the blatant mis-selling and downright misleading claims that I see in the market place.
Marketing codes are weak in many Asian markets, particularly when it comes to sustainability claims. When it comes to property, food, personal care and home products, the market appears to be a free-for-all. As an Asian consumer, it is not easy making healthy, green or ethical choices.
This lack of rigour is not just to the detriment of the consumer and the environment. It also penalises the companies making real efforts to ‘do the right thing’. And in the longer term, businesses risk facing the kind of adversarial and cynical marketplace which is now common across Europe and the Americas.
High trust in business
Asian businesses have yet to undermine their credibility with consumers in their home markets. In China, India, Indonesia and Singapore and Malaysia, 65% or more still trust business to ‘do the right thing’ – this is much higher than the global average of 53%. However, companies in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea seem to have lost the trust of consumers in these countries; trust levels are a dismal 31-47% and dropping rapidly.
Why does this matter in the context of claims and marketing? Well, it points to a tremendous opportunity to engage with consumers – clearly Chinese and SE Asian consumers are less cynical of claims, and they are open to ‘purpose-driven’ marketing and social/environmental messages.
Implications for business
Purpose-driven marketing require new products and services and businesses need to step up accountability for claims. Implications for businesses who want to avoid losing trust and tap into the ethical and consumer-conscious market are two-fold.
- Reformulation, new product development and product range consistency. It isn’t enough to simply re-package existing products. All companies should also look to ensure that claims are not inconsistent across the product range. One sustainable ingredient combined with a dozen less-sustainable inputs reeks of greenwash. A strategic review which includes a continuous improvement plan is imperative to stay ahead of the curve and ensure consistency.
- Documentation and monitoring. Environmental and social claims will be increasingly scrutinized by both consumers and regulators. Ongoing internal monitoring and external progress reporting via websites or sustainability reports are crucial as back-end documentation, allowing skeptical or inquisitive stakeholders to dig deeper into claims. A third party audit of key inputs or claims can also assure buyers and companies alike that claims are robust and credible.
The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.