Opinion: Marketing & Access

Savvy and Safe: the Business Case for Responsible Marketing

Brown-Forman’s first Corporate Responsibility Report, published in 2007, put down a clear marker by stating that the company’s goal was ‘eliminating the irresponsible marketing of beverage alcohol’.

Marketing techniques are changing and becoming more sophisticated in order to attract an increasingly savvy consumer base and to take advantage of a rapidly evolving set of media technologies. This means the company has to be more proactive than ever in ensuring and promoting responsible practice. It only takes the bad publicity from a single code breach to cause reputational damage to a company and its brands.

It is therefore impossible to separate out the ethical, moral and social case for responsible marketing from the straightforward business case. As Paul Varga says: “…responsibility, while not having its own separate line on a P & L statement, still very much helps the bottom line.”

A few principles to guide corporate behaviour in this area might include:

Compliance is not enough

Going the extra mile, beyond the collective agreement of the various codes, shows genuine commitment and leadership. Brown-Forman’s action on demographics and media buying is an example of this.

Rules must be independently interpreted

Brown-Forman’s commitment to self-regulation is credible, but taking ownership of the rules on responsible marketing is one thing and having the confidence to entrust their interpretation to an independent third-party body is the real test. Brown-Forman should use its influence to ensure such a mechanism is available in all markets.

Engage with your critics

Brown-Forman has said it is willing “to meet on equal ground with our adversaries and critics”. Investing in this engagement is bound to be valuable, as various interest groups realise that they share common goals and can share complementary skills in achieving them. The UK’s Drinkaware Trust is one good example of this process.

Responsible marketing is everyone’s responsibility

Not just those with CSR in their job title, or the public affairs and government relations people, but all the business functions – sales, marketing, R&D, legal, and the creative agencies – must integrate responsible marketing as a core concern.

Be proactive

Challenging new hotspots which don’t quite fit the rules will always appear. For example, the application of responsible marketing standards to internet advertising, social networking sites and cellphone technology is vital if self-regulation is to maintain credibility.

Self-regulation has the capacity to be more efficient than legislation at keeping marketing standards high and ensuring that products and their advertising which breach the rules are removed swiftly from the market. Independence, transparency, flexibility and demonstrable compliance are all essential elements for credible self-regulation. Brown-Forman must be both a champion and an example of best practice.

Jean Coussins
September 2009

*Disclaimer:  Jean Coussins is an independent consultant to Brown-Forman.


The beverage alcohol industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. Self-regulation, or voluntary regulation above requirements, by beverage alcohol companies can be based on individual company, industry, or industry association codes, or any combination of such codes to which a company commits its compliance. Self-regulation addresses matters such as ad placement, responsible consumption messaging and vetting of marketing campaigns, among others.

Challenges in Responsible Retailing

Both on-premise and off-premise alcohol retailers experience challenges in responsible retailing. Rigorous law enforcement increases risk to retailers, on-premise retailers find themselves responsible for the behavior of customers before they arrive. Employee training is key to ensuring responsible retailing.

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