In what ways can marketing and digital communications be ‘ethical’? Part 3
Updated: Nov 21
For the third and final post, we will be looking at an example of a brand that is future-proofing: Vanmoof.
Founded by two brothers in the Netherlands, VanMoof is a premium e-bike producer that has seen year-on-year sales increase by 230% in the UK alone, doubled its annual revenue and claims to have saved 1346 tons of CO2 in journeys made on their bikes as opposed to other means of transport. (VanMoof 2022)
Ties Carlier co-founder VanMoof (2021) states, "We're making the best city bike in the world, to achieve our much bigger purpose- better cities and happier humans"
This case study will examine VanMoof's ability to future-proof as it relates to future problems and audience expectations In 2021, the brand released two campaign videos. ‘Future is forwards’ and ‘Rethink the city’. Reimagine the future. Both campaigns ran worldwide on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, with ‘The future is forward’ showing on TV in the United States, Netherlands and Germany. (VanMoof, 2021)
Figure 1: VanMoof 2021. The Future is Forwards
Figure 2: VanMoof 2021. Rethink the City - Reimagine the Future
To effectively critique the campaign as it relates to ethics, it is important to explore the broader context into which VanMoof is marketing.
After conducting a PESTLE analysis (see appendix 1), I have chosen to focus on the environmental analysis. in particular, Covid and climate change.
Covid and Changing Work Habits
In 2020, VanMoof founder Calier stated, "Everything we predicted for the next 10 years is just happening in three months” (VanMoof, 2020). The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on how we work and has changed the expectations of the future workforce. Recruitment expert and dragon’s den star James Caan CBE (2022) stated, “Post-pandemic, the expectations that we have of our workplace have completely shifted. Priorities have changed, and potential hires are now eschewing long hours, sky-high salaries or impressive job titles in favour of remote working opportunities, culture, and increased work/life balance.” This is borne out in recent data showing that most of today's global workforce expects to work in either a remote or hybrid capacity permanently (Statitsa, 2022). When asked to prioritise the biggest benefits of working remotely, 59% of respondents to a recent global survey chose ‘I have more time because I don't have to commute.” as their main reason.
Climate Change and The Future of Cities
The future of city planning and travel has also seen an accelerated change due to the pandemic. “Carlos Moreno (2021), a scientific director and professor specialising in complex systems and innovation at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, believes there “will never be” a return to city life as it was before the coronavirus struck.”
Cities are major contributors to climate change consuming 78% of the world's energy and producing 60% of greenhouse emissions. (UN, 2021) This has caused many cities to rethink how things can be done. Barcelona and New York are scaling up car-free zones (CNN,2021), and both Dubai and Milan are experimenting with solutions ideal for cycling, such as the 15-minute city, “The 15-minute city requires minimal travel among housing, offices, restaurants, parks, hospitals and cultural venues. Each neighbourhood should fulfil six social functions: living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying. (BBC, 2021)
Audience expectations - ‘The Future is Forward’
One way in which the brand is future-proofing is by meeting future audience expectations. VanMoof states: ‘the future is forwards’ campaign “calls on people everywhere to keep up the momentum of change – to not revert to dysfunctional mobility habits and instead ride on into a greener, happier future” By promoting this message, the brand is both raising awareness of the broader conversation of changing working habits and associating itself as part of the solution Paul Geusebroek (2021), director of HALAL, the agency tasked with developing the campaign, revealed,
“This bicycle stands for not just the environment, but also for escaping the rut that people are in – for cycling out of that nine-to-five grind. It stands for freedom: everyone is stuck, but this person is just breezing through.” (VanMoof, 2021)
Considering the many benefits of ‘escaping the 9-5’ and adopting more flexible working offers, it is seen by some as workers' rights. The new legislation approved by the Dutch Parliament forces employers to consider requests to work remotely” (HRDirect, 2022).
This only applies to employees whose professions enable them to work from home,” but it’s a clear change of direction. That being said, it’s important to not ‘Green Shame’ those that either can’t or chose not to adapt to work flexibly “while many countries march head-first into a work-from-anywhere future, workers in locations including France or Japan are often returning to the office full-time, rejecting the notion that a five-day in-person work week is a relic of the past.” (BBC, 2022)
In a recent interview with the Financial Times (2022), Ties Carlier described the cost of living crisis as “very good” for e-bike sales and that “high fuel costs and the continuing squeeze on consumers’ wallets and force many to look for cheaper alternatives to cars and public transport.” But with products ranging from £2,248 to £2,998, I would argue this is a little tone-deaf to the needs and concerns of the future market. Data shows climate anxiety is equally felt among all household incomes (Statitsa, 2021). With the current rate of inflation set to carry on into 2023, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to buy or product like this, especially when there are cheaper alternatives.
The brand states they aim to “reimagine cycling for the cities of tomorrow ”(Vanmoof, 2020). This point is highlighted within ‘Rethink the city. Reimagine the future’ advert. In many cities, cycling and e-bikes are in consideration as part of the solution. For example, a recent promotion in Denver allowed residents to claim vouchers of between $400 -$1200, depending on their income, to purchase e-bikes (denvergov.org, 2022)
The city's chief climate officer highlights, “Transportation is the number one source of air pollution in Denver,” (Rink, G. 2022). So clearly, the authorities are also considering E-bikes as a solution and are willing to spend large sums of money to support the idea.
A critique of this plan could be to say it’s only focused on cities, but as over half of the world's population lives in cities and is expected to grow to 68.8% by 2050 (Statitsa, 2022), it makes sense to prioritise this message
How green is VanMoof
To date, VanMoof claims to have saved 1346 tons of CO2 in journeys made on their bikes as opposed to other means of transport. (VanMoof, 2022) This is fantastic but how does it relate to the emissions for producing bikes, the C02 needed to charge them and dealing with the batteries when no longer working? Info on these points is weak on the ground and a potential blind spot for the brand.
While research suggests that “ Generation Z prefers to buy from brands it considers to be sustainable and is willing to pay 10% more to do so.” it also shows Increasingly savvy consumers won’t accept surface-level commitments as signs of a sustainable brand. To future-proof your business, you must go beyond headline-grabbing announcements and win the trust of consumers who are so vital to your long-term prospects.” (World Economic Forum, 2021)
Both campaigns have a unifying motif of the future. They highlight the problems of the existing transport model and display an encouraging and positive alternative. Trying to change an audience's mind on a subject like this is a balancing act that the brand has got wrong in the past. The 2020 ‘ Time to ride the future ‘ Campaign was banned by the french advertising regulators for descrediting the entire car industry. (VanMoof, 2020)
The brand has learned from this experience has got the balance right with more recent campaigns. Tier Calier recently stated “We want to hold a mirror up to the world. We didn’t want to call anyone out for their behaviour:"
So in what ways is marketing ethical?
The reality is that it’s a complicated and nuanced answer depending on the context, objectives and people involved.
Case study one exhibits the responsibility that marketers have for the work they do. A lack of malicious intent isn’t a valid excuse for unintended negative outcomes for both brands and audiences. Marketing author Seth Godin (2006) affirms this when he says,” We’re responsible for what we sell and how we sell it. We’re responsible for the effects (and the side effects) of our actions.” This also demonstrates the importance of regulatory bodies in protecting brands and audiences. Quick actions from the ASA limited the damage to the brand and the audience, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the campaign architects.
A cynical view of case study two could be to conclude that inclusivity and diversity promoted in beyond the surface were just effective techniques for improving sales and ROI. I would counter this by saying, two things can be true at the same time? Yes, using diversity in campaigns may help sell more Adidas products, but it also had a positive effect on its moral objectives. On a personal note, I wonder if the organisers would have invested so much creative and physical energy into such a large body of work if they were not invested in the social outcomes too.
Case study 3 demonstrates the power that brands have not only to change opinions but also to shape the future. VanMoof is not just trying to sell people e-bikes but also an alternative future. Their 2020 campaign shows that bold messaging can, at times, cross the line, but in contrast to match.com, it was a thought-through, intentional, risk that they owned. While much of the marketing world exists to sell products, it's clear that the skill sets and spending power give marketers a fantastic opportunity to do good for society. The IPSOS (2021) say “Brands have the power to drive change in our society, and we see in the data that doing good for society is also linked to doing good for brand growth (IPSOS, 2021)”
Ethical marketing is ultimately the responsibility of the marketer. As Seth Godin (2006) says, “It is our decision. Whatever the decision is, you need to own it. If you can’t look that decision in the mirror, market something else.”
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Figure 1: VanMoof 2021. The Future is forward. [film still]. Available at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkNJ-xjgkJk [accessed 22nd October 2021]
Figure 2: VanMoof 2021. Rethink the city - rethink the future. [film still]. Available at :https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VOiMX-OLjA [accessed 22nd October 2021]