Morals of Marketing

In the 80s I lived in a tiny town in South India. Relocating from Sydney, it took a bit of getting used to. Luckily, our FM receiver picked up songs from Radio Sri Lanka, which at the time had two English FM stations. And that’s how I heard Van Halen’s Jump which is one of my all time favourite songs. Even I could tell that the guitar playing was really something, and I just loved the energy. In those pre-internet days I did not know that Eddie Van Halen started drinking at 12, or smoked like a chimney – I discovered this only by reading his obituary this week.  What mattered was just the music – those were simpler times. I used to record songs from the radio and listen to it while doing homework – so credits to Van Halen for at least some of my marks. (Can Spotify work as well as Byju’s?)

When I was in high school in that tiny town, Brilliant Tutorials had cornered the market for creating IIT-ready students. It would have involved a one hour bus-ride to attend classes and looked like a huge step up from our school syllabus, so I declined to go that route, and my parents accepted that decision. On my Whatsapp groups there has been quite a lot of discussion on whether Byju’s is ethical in promoting a bright future for students who use their apps. No tool can ensure that your kid becomes an IITian or whatever is your dream goal. It can, however, ensure that if your child is in line with that dream they will not lose out for lack of access to the right skillsets. Whether Byju’s delivers that or you are better off with Khan Academy is not something I’m qualified to comment on. I also do not dare, after The Ken’s piece.

I was a big customer of Baby Einstein videos. Not because they were educational but because they would stupefy the adorable tyke long enough for us to get some food into her. Baby Einstein – by then under the ownership of Walt Disney – was the subject of a class action suit  Walt Disney offered to refund the purchase price. This was possible because of activist organizations like Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and also because it could be proved that the misleading claims were against the law. For something similar to happen in India we would need widespread consumer revolt against this kind of communication, but also a legal framework that defines what is ok and what is not.

On LinkedIn there was a discussion sparked by Concept PR’s involvement in a controversial rape case. My take is that we are expecting too much when we want companies to adhere to our moral standards. Morals and ethics vary according to the beholder and also change over time. So, while people as individuals can be held to certain commonly known standards, companies are only obliged to stay within the legal framework. The market will/should reward businesses that adhere to a higher standard, but there is no assurance that those that adhere to a lower standard but maintain the legal minimum are punished.

This Saturday, I’m part of something which is an example of business doing good. Kestone is partnering with GiveIndia for a 24 hour virtual show, Imagine. You can catch Deepali Naair, CMO of IBM India and South Asia, Piyush Gupta, President, Kestone and me for a discussion on the future of events. The show itself is an example of how cool digital events can be, with Arunachalam Muruganantham (Padman of India), Atul Khatri, stand-up comedian, Dharmendra Rai (Mind Map Trainer), Dr. Mickey Mehta (Global leading holistic health guru and corporate life coach), C. K. Kumaravel, Co-founder of Groom India Salon & Spa, and 50+ other artists and global thought leaders to help enable uninterrupted education in the post COVID world. You can register here if you’d like to be a part of this.

As a thinking marketer, I do like to explore topics like whether companies can have morals and whether Hugo Boss suffered long term as a Nazi sympathizer Marketers often get a bad rep for selling snake oil (did you know Rockefeller Sr sold ‘Rock Oil” as a cure for cancer?) – but imagine, the power of good we also have! You my dear reader, as a consumer, can vote with your money on what is ok and what is not. You can also vote with your investment money on companies that are nicer than others – social entrepreneurship comes to mind. You can also try to change the mind of the consumer, to enable them to make better choices. And for those of you in a position to do so, better legal frameworks to safeguard consumers.  But as marketers, you can also choose to deploy your skills in favour of things that you think will make the world a better place.

Have a thoughtful week ahead.

PS: I am going to be publishing my piece on whether to sell to existing customers or new ones on tomorrow, so those of you who are interested, please keep an eye out for it there.


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