Is Branding Ethically Wrong?

It is a common belief that branding is highly important to marketers, consumers, and society-at-large. But several years ago there arose a movement stating that branding is actually not ethical.

Historically, branding has been viewed as advantageous to all stakeholders, because it promotes higher quality, fosters competition, and enhances profits while reducing consumers’ search costs. However, in the recent years the subject of branding has become controversial. It has sparked a worldwide movement that labels branding as not just problematic, but “immoral”. Here are the arguments of anti-globalization activists and marketing academics who criticize the ethicality of branding.

Branding Under Attack: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs

The most famous critique of global brands was written by a Canadian journalist Naomi Klein back in 1999. Her book, No Logo, has become a manifesto for anti-globalization activists attacking the organizational practice of branding.

Klein links the growth of multinational corporations with “a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products”. While admitting the effectiveness of this idea, the author dwells on the negative consequences of brand-oriented marketing activity.
The book consists of four sections: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, and No Logo. In the first three, Naomi Klein chastises global brands for:

  • cultural and educational expansion (No Space);
  • replacing local alternatives (No Choice); 
  • exploitation of Third World workers, McJobs, and domestic unemployment (No Jobs). 

The final section, No Logo, details an agenda for anti-globalization activists, with the aim of fighting the tyranny of corporate rule. According to Klein, it should be achieved through boycotts, lawsuits, and pickets against global brands.

Branding and anti-Americanism

n marketing academe, brand marketing is heavily criticized by Johny Johansson, professor at Georgetown University. Johansson considers branding “morally bankrupt”. This claim is set out in his book, In Your Face, published in 2004.

Johansson uses Klein’s arguments as a starting point and suggests a connection between anti-branding and three movements: anti-marketing, anti-globalization, and anti-Americanism. He states, “The Americans were the main proponents of [the Iraq] war, and they were also the main proponents of globalization. Anti-Americanism and anti-globalization seemed two sides of the same coin, and marketing surely played a common role in both movements”. According to Johansson, this is the reason why 121 of 140 brands denounced in No Logo were American.
Not only does the researcher agree with Klein’s charges, but he also accuses American marketers of encouraging “commercialism, consumption, and materialism”. For Johansson, “The problem with these brands is that they encourage an American lifestyle based on superficiality and fads, all engineered by profit-seeking marketers. It is this new consumer space, with its in-your-face marketing techniques, that threatens engrained ways of life and traditional culture.”

He argues that American marketing practices appeal to “a lowest common denominator” of a multiethnic and multicultural mix of people inhabiting the U.S., which excludes “advanced and sophisticated expressions or products” and pursues unlimited spending.

Branding Critics and Their Weak Spots

The critiques of both Klein and Johansson have fueled a global anti-branding movement, which has been growing steadily ever since. However, their arguments are not flawless.

Branding’s critics claim that it is ethically wrong because the American model of branding has strong negative consequences. But they ignore its positive societal effects, such as improvements in the quality of products and the ability to detect unsafe goods, which prompt the idea that brands are not the problems to solve, but rather the institutions to solve problems.

In addition, it is hard to determine whether branding’s critics actually attack branding or the actions of particular brands, not to mention that their allegations seem more anti-American than anti-branding. Another problem with the arguments of scholars and activists who consider branding ethically wrong is that they do not pay respect to the basic right to exercise freedom.

Shelby D. Hunt, the leading authority in marketing theory, states that individuals and firms have the right to advocate for the names of their brands. Likewise, consumers have the right to own branded goods, interact with brands and consider them as part of their “extended selves”. This leads him to the following conclusion, “Therefore, the freedom norm, a potential hypernorm, implies that brands, consumer-brand relationships, brand equity strategies, and the societal institution of branding are fundamentally, deontologically ethical.”  
So is branding ethically right or wrong? This question is still open to debate. However, it seems obvious that the quarrel has little to do with brand marketing itself. In fact, it is about the choices the brands and consumers freely make. After all, branding is just an instrument, and its ethicality fully depends on the personal moral codes of people who use it.