A human way of marketing

November 06, 2015

Can brands connect with consumers on a meaningful, human level? Laura Perez explores the field of ‘socially responsible marketing’.


“Humans don’t buy from companies; humans buy from humans” says HubSpot co-founder, Dharmesh Shah.

Shortening the distance between the corporation and the buyer is an emerging interest tackled by the marketing field, in which companies aim to build deeper more personal connections with their customers. In fact, there is evidence showing that products linked to a cause are more likely to be bought by 86% of consumers if price and quality are equal.

It is no surprise then, that the field of marketing has generated a concept called ‘socially responsible marketing’, which goes beyond fulfilling business marketing needs and into tackling social issues relevant to the company. More and more innovative marketing strategies like these are employed by businesses in the areas of advertising, campaigning, branding and product design.

Marketing goes back a long way. Perhaps a good place to start is with the birth of public relations in the 1920s. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, widely linked the understanding of the consumer to a company’s ability to sell more. He believed that by linking a product to people’s deeper hopes and fears, consumers’ behaviors could be manipulated, to fuel consumption. Products were now bought, not because the last one was unusable, but because of how they made you feel, whether this was a heightened self-esteem or feelings of liberation. His achievements included branding cigarettes as “torches of freedom” to encourage women to smoke, and turning bacon and eggs into the true American breakfast.

Appealing to the emotions is a trend that is continuing with socially responsible marketing. However, this more human way of marketing is focusing more on raising awareness around social causes as opposed to convincing people they need certain products.

Examples include the provocative advertisements put out by United Colors of Benetton over the last few decades, which are surrounded by controversy. The adverts give contemporary, under-represented issues like guerilla conflict and HIV a voice through billboard advertisements. One of the most controversial images in the history of Benneton ads is a graphic image of a newborn baby, censored in Italy for “not [taking into] account public sensitivity”. It begs the question: what kind of images do we want to show? Images depicting the happiest moments in a person’s life or the photo-shopped façade traditionally surrounding the realm of advertising? Showing stark reality may be controversial, but it evokes strong emotional responses, be it anger or shock, and generates dialogue into issues that require more attention. This kind of controversy can lead to progression as opposed to other types of controversy like Benetton’s competitor American Apparel, which is accused of objectifying and sexualizing children in its adverts.

Benetton is an extreme example, removing its products from advertisements entirely in order to hone in on its image as a socially responsible company. Other companies choose socially responsible marketing strategies around issues that are quite relevant to their products. Examples include the international paint and coating manufacturer, Valspar’s #colorforall campaign involving color-blind people, Dove’s campaign for real beauty and Samsung’s viral ad bringing awareness to deaf and mute individuals.

This business responsibility can be extended to a different branch of marketing. Furniture manufacturer Vitsoe takes a different direction in the branding of its products. Rather than creating products to shape the identity of the individual, Vitsoe creates simple products that allow the individual to personalise them. Its products are built almost like a puzzle where pieces are easily replaceable if they get damaged, rather than having to buy an entire new product. By purposely removing the branding from its product, Vitsoe allows customers to make it “theirs”, move with quickly shifting trends and diminish the possibilities of it being replaced by the next new and upcoming product. We need more companies that look at design that moves away from our quick consumerist culture.

So why should companies strive towards this approach to advertisement and product design? Focusing on meaningful topics people connect to at a deeper level makes for a potentially longer-lasting relationship with consumers. That is the kind of quality businesses should be striving towards within their engagement with the public. This supports Bernays’ theory of appealing to people’s emotions, but instead of manipulating them into buying a product to increase their ego, it is raising awareness around deeper societal issues surrounding the use of those products.

However, there is a danger of companies generating skepticism by taking very serious issues surrounded by pain and suffering to emotionally attract consumers for the simple purpose of selling more. Benetton could be said to be resorting to cheap shock tactics to sell its products, in the absence of any more meaningful commitment to responsible business. Branding must always be backed up by substance.

True socially responsible marketing should be about using branding and advertisement to enhance our lives and fulfill our needs, not to create desires that do not increase our wellness or that of the communities around us.


Laura is a research intern at Corporate Citizenship.