Unethical Branding v. Ethical Branding

In 2015, Volkswagen was found to have cheated on emissions tests for about 11 million cars worldwide. In a nutshell, they put a sort of “defect device” software in these cars that could sense when they were being tested. These devices would then make the engines use less power and performance during the test, and then switch back to their fuel-guzzling normal state once the test was over. Super shady. Despite the positive test results, VW cars were emitting nitrogen oxide pollutants that were way above what US law permits (about 40x over!).

Fast forward three years and this story is still developing. In May 2018, it was revealed that even more cars were tested with these cheating devices. And NPR announced in June that another CEO has been arrested in connection with the scandal.

So why is this important to branding? Because Volkswagen’s brand is based on sustainability and environmental protection. 

Volkswagen has completely tarnished their brand and destroyed consumer trust. They denied their own promises to their customers. It’s really hard to come back from that.

This Volkswagen scandal is a perfect example of unethical branding, and a major reason why some people still view branding as nothing but a manipulation tactic. VW is giving branding a bad name.

But branding isn’t the bad guy. Branding—when done ethically—is simply the communication of your business’ unique identity. It’s telling your audience what your (actual) values are and what (actually) makes you different. So when you deliver on what your brand promises, consumers will choose you in an overwhelming sea of competitors. 

So how do you spot the difference between unethical and ethical branding? Unfortunately, sometimes companies can be super sneaky about their values; it’s not always so easy to tell. But there are a few red flags that should make you take a step back and say, “Wait. Should I really be giving my money to this company?”

Traits of Unethical Branding

1. Not delivering on promises.

You never break a pinky promise. If you guarantee transparency, and then don’t tell your consumers how you’re sourcing or why you price the way you do, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. If your brand is centered around innovation, but you don’t put out a new product for ten years, that’s questionable. Often brands don’t deliver on promises by accident—maybe they’re not paying attention or having a rough season. But sometimes brands are simply flat-out lying. By cheating on emissions tests and releasing harmful gases, Volkswagen is definitely not delivering on their “value” of environmental protection.

2. Appearing differently on different platforms.

Consistency is a huge part of any genuine brand. So if a business claims to love the outdoors on Instagram, but cherishes the homebody lifestyle on Facebook, something doesn’t quite add up. They might just be assuming a different persona on each platform based on what they feel that audience could relate to the most. This is confusing and disingenuous.

3. Seeming exactly (or almost exactly) the same as a competitor.

Some companies have similar values or use similar colors, but they should never look and sound exactly the same. Just like every person, every business is unique. Every business has its own story and its own team of people people behind it. It’s impossible for two businesses to coincidentally  have every single aspect of their brand in common. One of the two is a copycat.

Traits of Ethical Branding

1. Staying true to who you are.

Real branding is authentic. Take some time to think about why you founded your business in the first place—who were you trying to help? What were you trying to accomplish? Then craft your own unique brand story. Let that story bleed into your tactics. Let it be the motivating factor in every action you take regarding your business.

2. Customer loyalty.

Customers aren’t dumb. They can spot a disingenuous  brand from miles away. If your company has many satisfied and repeat customers, that’s probably because you’re very trustworthy. You’ve developed a brand that has people always coming back for more.

3. Your reputation matches your actual identity.

If what people are saying about you is true, that’s probably not a coincidence. You definitely had something to do with that. You worked hard to make sure that the image that people had of you in their minds was a positive, trustworthy one.

Bottom Line: There’s a difference between ethical and unethical branding. Branding is only bad when it’s done maliciously. Ethical branding is all about genuinely defining who you are and then acting on that identity. Keep your promises and build trust with your customers, don’t lie to them or pretend to be someone you’re not. They will notice!