Insurance company Dead Happy is the latest firm to quote its role as a disruptor brand to deflect criticism for unethical tactics. In this case, the firm unashamedly used an image of serial killer Dr Harold Shipman to try to sell insurance, prompting heartache among his victims’ families and vast numbers of complaints.
The company’s initial response said, “We are called DeadHappy and our strapline is ‘Life insurance to die for’ so we are aware of the provocative and to some the very shocking nature of our brand.
“But being provocative is different to being offensive and it is of course never our intention to offend or upset people. It is our intention to make people stop and think.
“If however you have been personally distressed by this advert we do sincerely apologise.”
This doesn’t sound contrite, although it did later put out a more straightforward apology and promise to review its advertising strategy. As I have said before, if you use the word ‘but’ in an apology, you probably aren’t really sorry at all.
Tactics such as these don’t just hit the reputation of a disruptor brand (although there will always be a small segment of the target audience who respond positively.) They can have direct impacts from regulators, in this case the Financial Conduct Authority which has imposed conditions of Dead Happy.
A host of self-styled disruptor brands have come unstuck owing to big ethical vacuum at the heart of their proposition.
- Brewdog – which has had its much trumpeted B-Corp status removed because of a toxic work culture
- Uber – which faces court battles over drivers’ rights and, simultaneously, is criticised for weak vetting of drivers
- Ryanair – which has not just been roundly condemned for poor customer service and hidden fees, but has recently been accused of racial discrimination too
- Amazon – whose staff complain robots are treated better than them
There’s a danger that the phrase “We’re a disruptor brand” has become the corporate equivalent of “It’s just banter”. That lazy excuse which people use to deflect criticism of behaviour or speech which has upset others. Being a disruptor is no way to excuse bad corporate practice or culture.
The irony is that many disruptor brands play on some ethical standpoint. Look at the brands mentioned above. All of them portray themselves as the ‘people’s champion’. But dig beneath the surface and it’s plain to see. To generate that persona – those ultra-low prices, those quirky, sustainable beers, that ultra-convenience – someone always get hurt.
So, by all means change the way things have been done before, challenge the status quo – but don’t check your conscience in at the door.
Your brand is not the Messiah, and nor do you want to be a very naughty boy.