Can responsible businesses promote Black Friday sales?

Friday 24th November: The concept of Black Friday was created by retailers in the United States, in a bid to entice shoppers into their stores on the day after Thanksgiving. With the idea now being firmly embraced by lots of companies in the UK, Blueprint questions whether these promotions can be considered best practice in the world of responsible business.

Fast moving consumer goods companies are reliant on sales. In order to remain competitive and successful, they must sell their products to their customers. Considered in this setting, Black Friday could be believed to be a good thing. Companies benefit from increased sales; helping them to stay afloat in the long term. Customers benefit from cheaper prices than at other times in the year; potentially improving their quality of life. The question then, is not whether companies should be selling products in the first place, but whether in the case of Black Friday, the negatives of doing so outweigh the positives.

In line with Blueprint’s Five Principles of a Purpose Driven Business, responsible businesses create goods which are truly good and services which actually serve society. Responsible businesses see profit as the outcome of a successful organisation, rather than being the purpose for a company in the first place.

It can be challenging to interpret which goods are truly good and which services truly serve society, as many products have the potential to benefit or harm customers or society in some way. Much of it depends on whether a company is living out its stated purpose.

As an example, if an organisation is strongly promoting its products to anyone it can, the company is probably not respecting and valuing the people buying those products; but rather seeing those people as a route to higher revenue.

Many companies employ lessons from human psychology and behavioural science — placing sweets next to supermarket checkout queues, or designing the same advert to pop up again and again all over the internet. These methods are excellent at exploiting human vulnerability and at pushing products on people who don’t necessarily need them. To quote the eminent economist Tim Jackson “Companies persuade us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about.”

Perhaps then, purposeful businesses and brands need to start thinking about what we could mean by purposeful marketing? Professor Victoria Hurth of Plymouth University has begun to explore this concept and created a framework for sustainable marketing. It will be interesting to see how these ideas are developed and applied in coming years.

One approach to purposeful and responsible marketing is perhaps counterintuitive to tradition: recognising that your customers do not need to buy new things all of the time, and thus asking them not to. On Black Friday in 2011, Patagonia did exactly this: running an advertising campaign in the New York Times telling their customers “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. The campaign was created to fall in line with the organisation’s overarching purpose, which is to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

All companies need to recognise that over the long-term, their success will not be determined by how much money they make on Black Friday, but rather on how well they build meaningful relationships with the people upon which the company depends.

Responsible businesses must be careful that a desire to sell more stuff, both on Black Friday and at any other time in the year, doesn’t cause them to lose sight of the bigger role that they play within society.