All brands big and small are familiar with marketing strategies. They’re intricate, they’re expansive, and there’s much more to them than just posting on social media and sending out emails. There are countless ways that brands psychologically influence their consumers to spend their money with them. But they can be shameless and ruthless while doing it.
The big issue here is profits. Rarely do we see a multimillion-pound business putting the wellbeing of their customers and their feelings over that of their profits. After all, what is business without profit?
This means that they will do anything and everything they can, including pandering to minorities, to secure a sale.
Marketing strategies are not only intricate and complex, but they are illusive, too. We’re not supposed to notice them. They’re designed to reach into our subconscious and make us want to spend money. It’s easy to give them the benefit of the doubt because they want to fit seamlessly into our every day lives.
But are they all ethical? Is there an aspect of social responsibility?
The immoral deception of marketing strategies
Every June, you may notice the high streets become more colourful than usual. The iconic rainbow stripes appear as if by magic every June 1st and are enough to instantly brighten anyone’s day. Sprawled over the brick walls and windows of some of Britain’s favourite coffee shops, banks, and supermarkets, it’s more than just a display of solidarity. It’s yet another in a long list of marketing strategies adopted by big business to try and sell their products. Marketing strategies are plentiful and varying, but they all have one goal in mind. Sell as much merchandise to as many consumers as possible.
Pander marketing strategies like those used during pride month are often successful. Partly because they seem so innocent and sincere at face value, but there’s more to it than that.
Many of them rarely offer support to the community outside of pride month. Even more have the audacity to release limited edition pride merchandise, but don’t care to support a charity or sponsor a parade in the process. Not all marketing strategies are bad, but some are immoral and insincere. The issue lies in telling the difference.
How do we know these marketing strategies are insincere?
I’m sure everyone remembers that now infamous and dreaded ‘LGBT’ sandwich Marks & Spencer attempted to peddle last pride month. If not for the social media outrage, then definitely for the national debate it sparked on BBC’s Good Morning Britain and ITV’s This Morning.
The particularly unappetising nature of the sandwich is not the only reason it received backlash and became a point of national contention. To accompany the sandwich and marketing strategy, Marks & Spencer made a generous donation of £10,000 to AKT, Britain’s leading LGBTQ+ youth homelessness charity, and a further €1,000 donation to BeLonG To Youth Services charity in Ireland.
On the surface, this seems fantastic. It’s more than many companies care to do in terms of showing support. Unfortunately, though, to me and many others in my community, it seems empty.
A survey conducted by YouGov revealed that many consumers can see right through these marketing tactics. We know by now that consumers are much smarter than brands give them credit for, and we can see pretty clearly through what is genuine and what is not.
I’ve battled with this over and over in my head. On one hand, whether it is sincere or just another marketing ploy, at least their efforts are working towards our joint goal of complete acceptance. On the other hand, this is clearly just a marketing tactic in which they are using our identities as a tool to make more money. Talk about a double-edged sword.
To put this all into perspective for you, let’s have a look at their donations in relation to their profits.
With a total revenue of £9.4b in the UK over the last year between March 2018 and March 2019, their £10,843 donation looks significantly smaller now. I’ll do the maths for you, that equals just over 0.0001% of their yearly revenue.
No one is saying that they must donate millions every year in order to seem legitimately supportive of LGBTQ+ youth. Although showing support outside of a sandwich launch or even outside of pride month would go a long way in gaining the respect and support from the LGBTQ+ community.
The issue is, this just confirms our suspicions that this was nothing more than a meaningless donation in an attempt to curb criticism of their ‘LGBT’ sandwich. £10,843 is a small price to pay considering all they gained from it.
Sexuality, identity, acceptance, equality. They’re all hot topics at the moment, and for good reason. In the past years, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people have doubled across the UK. It’s a big issue, and the overall consensus is that these topics are important to our generation and those younger than us.
Brands have to keep up with what’s going on in society. They have to show that their values match those of their consumers, because if not, they’ll lose them. They also do this to gain consumers, thinking about Marks & Spencer, it would be safe to argue that ‘woke’ millennials are not their main consumer.
Interestingly, in 2017 Marks & Spencer chairman Archie Norman made somewhat of a plea back in 2017 to create a younger clothing line in a bid to change public perception that the supermarket chain is only for people over the age of 55. This could give us some sort of insight as to why they decided to run with this LGBTQ+ marketing strategy.
How does this work?
If it hadn’t been for the huge backlash they faced, this strategy would’ve worked without a hitch. Here’s why:
Theoretically (as it didn’t quite turn out this way in practice), they’re selling the right product (LGBTQ+ merchandise), in the right place (on every high street in the country), at the right time (during pride month).
This sits well with consumers. It shows that brands are involved with charity, it shows that they care about the same issues that the consumers care about, and so it drives people through their doors.
It also, again, in theory, garners great press. Pride month has become a huge event, and so it is covered by every major publication in the country, and often the brands that come out and show their support for pride end up getting featured in these stories. Great press equals great public image equals loyal customers.
Finally, those who share these values and want to support the cause are inclined to go and buy the merchandise, but no one ever really goes into a supermarket and leaves with just a sandwich. They buy the meal deal; they pick up the toilet roll they need and were planning to get after work. And they may as well get tonight’s tea while they’re in there, too.
Here’s what you can do
It’s clever, it’s cunning, but unfortunately, that’s business. All we can do as consumers is be aware and look at these marketing strategies with a sense of scepticism.
These aren’t some inexperienced interns coming up with and implementing these strategies. There is a lot of market research, planning, and testing conducted by huge teams of people before these campaigns see the light of day. They’re not new. They know what they’re doing.
For the most part, it works, and for the most part, people really don’t mind. Advertising and marketing are a part of our everyday lives now thanks to capitalism, there’s not a day goes by that we don’t see at least a hundred different brands trying desperately to convince us to spend our money with them.
And we’re free to do so, that’s our choice, but we have to be conscious when we consume. What are they selling? How are they selling it? Where does it come from? What are their values? Do they match mine? Do their words say one thing and their actions another?
As pride month approaches, if you see a brand changing the colours of their logo to match the colours of the LGBTQ+ flag, or creating a specialty sandwich to celebrate pride month, ask yourself:
Are they simply doing this to increase their profit margins? Or do they genuinely support the community year-round? Because there’s a big difference, and if it’s the former, they could be doing more harm than good.