Responsible marketing: when it’s cheaper, who pays the bill?

Faster, more, and cheaper, always cheaper. These marketing messages have been the backbone of our consumer society for decades and brought much commercial success. But what about social justice and progress? Have they in any way laid the foundations that are urgently needed to address the environmental and societal challenges we are now facing? Florence Touzé-Rieu finds out

It may sound controversial to tackle the subject of lower prices just when a significant part of the population is taking home less pay because of inflation and other negative effects of the pandemic. But we all know that we will have to pay more for sustainable energy and food, so it is essential to question our whole relationship with price. We must also question how marketing, over the last 50 years, has used the ‘low price’ lever to diminish our values, affect the social fabric and damage the environment. 

And why has the subject of true pricing become ever more opaque to the general public? For instance, how more bizarre could it be that a plane journey can be cheaper than a package of washing powder.

Is the holy grail of low prices the sole mission of marketing?

We have become convinced over all these years that everything should and must be ever cheaper, ever more accessible, so that everyone can have anything they want.

Where does this collective naivety, this general blindness, this great illusion that we wanted to believe in lead to? We end up with degraded offers, crude copies and cheaper and lower-value raw materials that we must source from ever greater distances, transport with ever greater environmental damage and produce with ever greater social impact. This leads to a downwards spiral where companies pay their employees and suppliers ever more poorly, must, in turn, try to produce ever cheaper products to keep their markets.

Of course, this destructive cycle has made the fortunes of a few, but it creates the misfortune of many. Why are we sawing off the branch on which we are all sitting?

Producing and selling at a lower price means making things more accessible. But at what cost? 

What can we say about a society where farmers do not have enough to live on because we will not pay three pennies more for a litre of milk? What can we say about companies that, under the guise of modernity, practicality, and low prices, destroy human value by imposing zero-hour contracts on the people who work for them? And what can we say about the marketing of the ‘cheapest’, if not that it embodies the cheapest kind of marketing? 

Marketing should be there to enhance a proposal, to promote its added value, and to justify the price the customer should pay.

Many of us are often happy to pay a premium for brands that make us dream, but no one wants to pay the real cost for basic products, or for our services to be properly remunerated. This is because we want to buy and consume more than we can actually afford.

Now is the time to rethink the cost-value-price equation, to look at the real value of things and services, to educate people, and to put these issues at the heart of marketing.

We need to know how much a product costs in raw materials, in work time, in transport and distribution. How much it costs the people who produce it and whether they can earn a living by providing us with this service. And how much it brings in terms of quality, real satisfaction, duration of use and pleasure to the consumer. Only after considering all these points, can we calculate a realistic selling price. 

Thankfully, some brands with ethical approaches are explaining why their products must be sold at a certain price level. Others are challenging the status quo by demanding a fair price all year round. These are interesting avenues.

The value of goods, time and skills is not just symbolic or emotional. For some services that are provided free, like Google or Facebook, the consumer themselves becomes the product because of data mining. But, when something is cheap, or free, who pays the environmental and social bills? 

Responsible marketing must start clarifying, explaining, teaching or reteaching value, and encouraging respect for the work of others. It is a challenge, but we must confront the reality of the cost of goods, time and skills. This is a worthy and great challenge for today’s communication and marketing professionals.

Florence Touzé-Rieu is Holder of the Positive Impact Chair #TogetherForGood, Audencia Business School

Florence Touzé-Rieu is Holder of the Positive Impact Chair #TogetherForGood, Audencia Business School

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