Lululemon recently became the latest brand to discover just how much ethical standards have risen lately. When the athlesiure company promoted a workshop on ways to resist capitalism, social media platforms lit up with posts arguing such discussions were at odds with its high prices.
Lululemon isn’t alone. Alongside many other firms facing public call-outs, vegan milk brand Oatly — previously popular with environmentally conscious consumers — has also come under fire for selling shares to an association with purported links to deforestation.
As the global impact of Covid-19 heightens focus on shared social responsibility, consumers are feeling compelled, and empowered, to make change happen. The pandemic hasn’t driven an entirely new perspective but rather crystallised priorities, with essentials such as trust and safety becoming critical. No longer content with simply urging businesses to embrace ethical principles, consumers are holding them to account and demanding action. Social considerations are now integral to their purchasing choices and how they scrutinise brands.
Demonstrating purpose is therefore critical for all members of the digital media ecosystem: brands, publishers, agencies, and vendors alike. And in order to safeguard their reputations and ongoing success, every player must ensure they stand up to scrutiny, on every front.
The CSR drive: how did we get here?
Digital media is used to moving with the ever-evolving cycle of consumer needs and interests. As what matters to audiences shifts, content adapts to ensure it keeps a finger on the current cultural pulse and stands the best chance of maintaining strong relationships.
Over the past few years, that has meant a rising focus on corporate responsibility. As consumers around the world have called for greater ethical commitment — with 47% walking away from brands that disappoint on social issues in 2019 — businesses have showcased their values, often via CSR programmes and championing important causes.
These efforts, however, have frequently come up against cynicism. Doubtful about what’s motivating organisations, the shift in gear has been seen by many consumers as more about boosting revenues than truly fuelling positive change. So much so that however sincere companies may be, expressing devotion to certain causes or improving sustainability is considered a "tick-box" exercise — with 35% of consumers viewing brands that speak out as “jumping on the bandwagon”, according to US research.
Brand purpose is being put under the microscope more than ever and there is no room for CSR dedication that only goes skin deep. As a result, there is a need for the digital media industry as a whole to reassess its foundations, with a particular emphasis on how the flow of adspend affects who succeeds in today’s online environment and the volume of ethical content available to consumers.
Change spending direction, change everything
Attention is the cornerstone of the digital media economy but cultivating a better web will mean tackling the difficulties created by how it has been used – and that will take wider collaboration. Typically, the majority of advertising budgets go to sites with the biggest audiences, which directs the bulk of revenue to publishers with the highest visitor numbers.
The problem with this system, however, is it rewards quantity rather than quality. Guiding investment purely with traffic volume can leave brands stuck in a negative loop, with a larger share of spend for lower-quality sites allowing them to constantly grow their reach. Added to the already significant challenges presented by blunt brand safety tools exemplified by keyword blocking, the result is continually diminishing yield and influence for ethical publishers.
Signs of positive development are emerging. The Stop Hate for Profit initiative provided an example of how formidable combined buyer power can be and showed the potential for responsible spending to reduce funding for hate speech and misinformation. In recent weeks, Havas has become the first major holding agency to join the Conscious Advertising Network, and a landmark new campaign from Accenture titled "Let there be change" has indicated its mission to help find a new way forward for online ads.
What the industry needs, however, is a means of re-routing investment towards high-quality publishers and enabling them to produce more diverse, valuable content. One option, for instance, is to establish ethical buying metrics. Both Mindshare and Havas are already striving to implement these practices, such as cross-organisation adoption of CSR principles and embedding sustainability into each proposal.
But while moves towards setting individual ethical benchmarks are encouraging, the next step must be a broader conversation about creating universal KPIs. That might involve standardising extra checks before parting with spend, such as working with Brand Advance to fund diverse publications at scale or Check My Ads to avoid harmful content. Brands could also decide to spend only with publications that can prove their ethical credentials. Indeed, Rohan Lightfoot, Mindshare’s chief growth officer for Asia-Pacific, recently made similar suggestions for an ethical inclusive listing that would allow brands to target trusted sites using ethics-centric criteria.
At the same time, it will also be essential not to lose sight of why these adjustments are needed. Spurred by the outbreak for more ethically conscious investment, consumers have realised the critical importance of understanding our collective social responsibility and pushing for change. That’s a lesson every player in the digital space should follow.
Acting to address long-standing issues will help the industry not only provide the ethical media consumers crave, but also mean it can begin cultivating the open, diverse and responsible web we all want, instead of waiting for it to arrive.
Richard Reeves is managing director of the Association for Online Publishing
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