Brown-Formanâ€™s first Corporate Responsibility Report, published in 2007, put down a clear marker by stating that the companyâ€™s goal was â€˜eliminating the irresponsible marketing of beverage alcoholâ€™.
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: â€œâ€¦responsibility, while not having its own separate line on a P & L statement, still very much helps the bottom line.â€
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-Formanâ€™s action on demographics and media buying is an example of this.
Rules must be independently interpreted
Brown-Formanâ€™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 â€œto meet on equal ground with our adversaries and criticsâ€. 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 UKâ€™s Drinkaware Trust is one good example of this process.
Responsible marketing is everyoneâ€™s responsibility
Not just those with CSR in their job title, or the public affairs and government relations people, but all the business functions â€“ sales, marketing, R&D, legal, and the creative agencies â€“ must integrate responsible marketing as a core concern.
Challenging new hotspots which donâ€™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.
*Disclaimer:Â Jean Coussins is an independent consultant to Brown-Forman.