Why is this interesting? - Wednesday, May 1

On brand purpose, virtue signaling, and digital ethics

I wrote an extended riff on this idea for the latest print edition of the excellent Courier Magazine in the UK, where I have a semi-regular column on business and consumer culture. You can find it on good newsstands in NYC, London, and elsewhere, and their international distribution is picking up. - Colin (CJN)

Colin here. If we are to believe today’s millennial consumer, the deep soul of a product is the reason they buy, not the product itself.

In extended trends reports and replicated powerpoint slides, we are told that brands need a deep spiritual mission in order to truly resonate with the modern class of buyers, those who are increasingly concerned with labor rights, sustainability of materials and the supply chain, and countless other touch points for good. We rightfully hold brands like Patagonia, the hospitality brand Six Senses, and retailer REI and others to lofty standards for the steps they go through to improve their businesses and outcomes for the world.

This is all well and good. And it might just ring true for certain categories. But in others, particularly digital services, social technology and in the on-demand world, the sad reality is that, for many, strength of brand plus smoothness of UX often subsumes greater, loftier ideals and purchase behaviors. If it is easy, feels good, and triggers a dopamine hit, it is simple to overlook any pesky issues.

Why is this interesting?

There’s a mental duality that very few will openly cop to, but is undoubtedly a factor. The reasons are many: short attention spans, desire to have what we want as quickly as possible, and the pleasure built into some of these platforms. The very modern idea of virtue signaling — carrying the co-op tote — to show how smart or "woke" we are often serves as a cover story for our more primitive desires and addictions.

This idea is the digital equivalent of telling all of your friends you are voting for the righteous candidate and even campaigning, and then in the ballot box, voting for the candidate who scratches your unique, selfish itches.

The examples are many. After reading headlines of Facebook’s improper data standards, its potential role in fanning the flames of hate, and countless other social and legal infractions, many are quick to decry the ethics of the platform. But often, these people in the same minute will be discreetly flicking through the Instagram feed.

Uber has had a laundry list of problems, ranging from growth at all cost bro-culture, to lax HR standards, to issues with their treatment of drivers. But given their first-to-market status, their costly investment in their product development and also the sheer saturation of the market, many of those that express concerns with its corporate culture still fire it up first when they need to get from point A to point B. How easy.

We also hear the stories of the new on-demand platforms like Instacart, Postmates, or Doordash and others reducing human labor to spreadsheet cells and also not providing any protections for their “non worker, workers.” But when hunger strikes, or the late-night need for a sundry comes up, the utility often subsumes any notions of moral, ethical business cultures. Sure, we care about worker treatment, but that Zara piece ripped from the runway was on sale. How quickly we forget the "I didn't get paid for this" protest notes from their workers sewn into the garments as a cry for help.

There are people that do make the ethical choices in the digital realm, opting for the more conscious of the bunch — or the ones that see some brand equity in positioning themselves as such, like Lyft. Sometimes there isn't a better choice. It would seem the so-called moral utility trap, and the idea of trading convenience, ease and smooth UX over the mission of a product is the stealth status quo. (CJN)

Chart of the Day:

This map of “Bay Area meme space” comes from Julia Galef (whose podcast, Rationally Speaking, I wrote about Tuesday). From her post: “This map is my attempt at illustrating that landscape of subcultures, and at situating the rationalist community within it. I’ve limited myself to the last 50 years or so, and to subcultures defined by ideology (as opposed to, say, ethnicity). I’ve also depicted some of the major memes that have influenced, and been influenced by, those subcultures.” (NRB)

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)