The Importance of Ethos
Ethos, a lofty word, and one that evokes the noble idea of standing by a cause, of taking responsibility for an issue. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ethos is defined as a person’s nature or disposition. So how do we reconcile the word with your business? How do you discover the ‘nature’ of your company? First, you ask yourself some harsh questions about the guiding principles by which you operate.
Why Should You Care?
Why should you care about your company’s ethos? Well, you wouldn’t be alone if you thought a perpetual pursuit of profit and growth is what a company should stand for. In fact, by a lot of capitalist rhetoric, profit is the only meaningful marker of a successful company.
However, the world in which we operate is one that has been ravaged by capitalism’s unrestrained exploitation of natural resources. It’s a world where individuals have been marginalized, enslaved and oppressed in the pursuit of accumulation. Simply, money-making without morals is not going to work.
What’s more is that companies may attempt to ‘green-wash’ but it’s to no avail. Think of BP changing its logo to a green flower following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. We live in a world where the polar ice caps melt only for oil companies to barge in and tap the ground for previously inaccessible deposits of oil.
The old saying goes ‘give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.’ Well if a man is greedy, there’ll be no fish left.
But there’s also a less noble reason to care about wider issues: your market cares. If your customers are competing for your services based on price alone, then you have no business ethos and no dedication to guiding morals. This is not going to be a company that inspires people.
According to the NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business, research shows that the U.S. consumer’s purchasing habits lean towards ethical retail. When looking at the purchasing of consumer packaged goods (CPG), and by using data contributed by IRi, 50% of market growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainable products. IRi uses data from bar scan codes at the retail checkout across varying industries.
Products that have a sustainability claim on their packaging accounted for 16.6% of the market in 2018, up from 14.3% in 2013. Products that are marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that weren’t.
The facts speak for themselves: 50% of the world’s current population is under the age of 30. This is the highest youth population that the world has ever had. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community Annual Report 2018-2019, the millennial generation sees climate change as the most critical issue that the planet faces. According to Futerra’s new research, 88% of consumers want brands to help them be more environmentally conscious and ethical in everyday life.
Even the climate change deniers, ruthless profiteers who seek to justify their own selfish business practices, can’t deny that honouring your customer’s wants is a shrewd business strategy. Even if you don’t care about a grander cause, an ethos that is centred on your customer’s spending habits is a sensible one.
But your ethos doesn’t have to be one dedicated to environmental causes. In fact, your actions will be more nuanced and will appear more sincere if they are relevant to your industry, if they take advantage of your expertise. For example, if you’re operating in the fashion industry, it’s one thing to vocally support reforestation, but it’s another to use sustainable textiles that are designed to last, that are designed to re-enter the market after use. If you’re a fashion eRetailer, it’s one thing to say that you support the Black Lives Matter movement with an Instagram post, it’s another thing to actively reflect this in your hiring decisions and model castings.
So How Do You Articulate your Ethos?
If a lack of a stance on ethical issues can damage your company, how do you make your ethos known? Increasing public interest in environmental concerns, political movements, data violation and fake news has made the average consumer more skeptical of large businesses. So it’s your job to actively instil your brand ethos in your actions: by demonstrating a renewed commitment to the wellbeing of your people, the environment and social causes.
Foster a Clear Mantra
First thing’s first, your business has to refine the way in which it talks about itself. Your mantra is a way for your company to encapsulate your statement of purpose in a direct and memorable way. Make your mantra your mission statement. If thoughts frame actions, your mantra will frame your future’s decisions. It’s crucial to have a clear and direct positioning that uses simple language over vague buzzwords. Your audience knows the difference between sincerity and posturing. Your audience also knows that your business is likely going to offer something very similar to your competitors. Your mantra needs to be a quick, clever means to stand out. Your mantra should be a snappy way to tell your audience how you’re an individual not by what you provide but by the way you provide it.
Put It Into Practice
There’s nothing more cynical than a company that bandwagons on a social cause with an empty gesture. Often, this takes the form of a social media post, and of course, a social media post that hijacks a trending hashtag in order to garner views. Just think of the sheer number of blacked out profiles that were seen on social media following the killing of George Flloyd. Now ask yourself how many of those profiles used their platforms to empower black businesses.
Instead, communicate your company’s ethos in the way you behave. The content that you share online not only reflects your values but is part of a larger network. The companies and individuals that you connect with speak volumes about the issues that motivate you.
However, it takes more than content to show you care. Your business can participate in events, host panel discussions or even convey its principles by way of a YouTube channel or podcast.
Most of all, your business needs to consider your ethos at every stage of the production and sales process. There’s an increasing spotlight being shone on the malpractices performed by unethical businesses. You don’t want to be caught preaching one thing and practicing another. If, for instance, you say your care about sustainability, has your choice of packaging materials been made with this in mind? Or are you still opting for the environmentally-damaging yet cheaper choice of plastic packaging?
In the UK alone, around 40% of plastic waste comes from discarded packaging, generating around 2.4 million tonnes of landfill mass a year.
Pass Your Values On
When working within an organisation, it’s unrealistic to merely send out a company newsletter with your updated ethos and expect all of your employees to follow suit. Instead, it pays to invest in training and education. You want a joined-up approach to actualising your ethos. This means that all departments must communicate effectively with each other, acting in pursuit of the same goals.
This also means incorporating your values in your hiring decisions. It may mean choosing the less obvious candidate if they culturally align with your organization and values. You should therefore be rewriting your job specifications to attract the right kind of candidate, making a point of the principles and ethos by which you stand.
You may also benefit from questioning how your employees fare when it comes to communicating your ethos? Are they active when it comes to sharing your marketing materials? If not, don’t take a punitive approach. Instead, this can inform the basis of your next training session. If you can’t inspire your team, it’s going to be harder to inspire the consumer.
So what do you stand for? What do you want your customers to think of when they shop with you? Do you want them to leave a sale feeling positive about supporting a wider cause? When a customer feels good, they’re likely to talk about why. It takes more than making money to inspire people. It takes principles. If you want word of mouth to grow your business, then you have to be worth talking about. Let your ethos invite conversation.