Prompted by an article by Martin Lindstrom (The Future of Ethics in Branding), I got to thinking about whether that paragon of unethical business, the advertising industry, could indeed make the quantum leap towards ethical and conscious business.

After all, advertising’s raison d’être is to beguile us, seduce us, manipulate and lie to us, all the while making us feel good about ourselves.  It plays directly and unashamedly into our egos – which is exactly what conscious business and conscious leadership isn’t about.

Sound boring not to succumb to it?  Apparently not.  Even advertising and branding has felt the pressure of the gathering zeitgeist towards more ethical and conscious behaviour.

Lindstrom, a brand futurist and author of books such as BRANDchild and BRANDsense, predicted how personal brands would take over our worlds just prior to LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter making this a reality in our lives, and his prediction for 2012 is a rise in the importance of ethics.  This coincides nicely with the rise of consciousness and the focus on more ethical business practices and conscious capitalism that we are seeing today.

Lindstrom identifies a number of practices that the advertising industry can start taking seriously if they are to avoid being exposed or having their clients exposed through consumer action fuelled by social media (see previous post here on conscious business backlash over soda wars: how consumer action can overthrow giants bent on unethical practices).  These advertising practices dovetail well with conscious business behaviours, so it is worth pointing out the big themes here:

Rule No. 1: Transparency

Rule No. 2: The power of the Consumer

Rule No. 3: Consider your impact on others

Unpacking each one of these in turn and borrowing liberally from Lindstrom:

Rule No. 1 – Transparency:

Transparency is one of the unwritten rules of conscious businesses.  From making financial information available to all employees to having an ‘open book’ detailing what everybody in store is being paid, conscious businesses don’t run themselves by subterfuge and fear.  These are the instruments of the ego: gaining advantage for one’s own survival through power-play, while in the process disadvantaging others.  Similarly, Lindstrom recommends that advertising follows the same code: be 100% transparent.  This is done by making sure that claims about products and brands stack up to reality, that your consumers know exactly what you know about them, that they know how you will use this information and are able to opt out at any time, that the downsides of products and services are well-communicated alongside their strengths and benefits, that expiration dates are visibly communicated, endorsements and testimonials are real and that nothing ‘hides behind’ legalese and small print from the customer’s point of view.

Rule No. 2 – The power of the Consumer:

Let consumers make the final call.  This is very similar to some conscious businesses (like Whole Foods Market) where the customer is placed in the foreground of all stakeholders.  Lindstrom recommends securing an ethical sign-off from a consumer panel regarding their perception of the product, as well as verifying the ethics of the product in reality.  We know from recent experience that consumers have a voice and if they are dissatisfied, if your business practices or advertising standards don’t match their values and ethics, or if you stray too far from the line, you will experience a powerful backlash through the unstoppable influence of social media.  Consumers are all connected: you want them to be positively connected about you.  It’s a great self-organising system, forcing us to all become more conscious of what we say and do.

Rule No 3 – Consider your impact on others:

In conscious business speak, this rule plays out by considering and integrating the needs of all your stakeholders so that they all benefit, not having some benefit at the expense of others.  Your stakeholders include your employees, your customers, your suppliers and partners, your shareholders and investors, the community of which your business forms part, the wider society and the environment.  In Lindstrom’s terms, he recommends that advertising is always open and transparent about the environmental impact of the brands it promotes, including their carbon footprint and sustainability.  And, from a human perspective, don’t do anything to others – and especially their kids – that you wouldn’t do to your own kids, friends and family.

These three rules appear to be emerging as a sort of set of ‘Golden Rules’ guiding our conducting of business.  Overlaying each other, they create a web of self-regulating behaviour that prompts us towards becoming more conscious and taking more self-responsibility for our actions.  Transparency borne out of global connectivity and social media, powered by the opinions and values of connected consumers the world over who care about the origins of what they buy, and who require businesses to act responsibly for the collective benefit of all.  This is the stuff that revolutions are made of, not just to a slightly different rearrangement of the deckchairs but to an entirely new order of thinking.

With thanks to Kellee Franklin who posted the original Lindstrom article on LinkedIn’s Group: Conscious Capitalists – Pacific NW.