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Ethical Marketing - Strategy, Obligation, or Both?

As social media and social selling have become powerful tools for business engagement and promotion, the rise of misinformation, exaggeration, and outright lying has become a serious issue. While marketing and promoting have and will always include an element of “selling a vision” or an “ideal customer state”, in recent years it seems that many individuals and businesses are okay with growth and sales at all costs – specifically over any idea of ethics or fairness.

As marketing leaders, we are responsible for our teams and that responsibility goes far beyond driving sales and building brand awareness.


Truth in Marketing: Why It Matters

Let’s start with the self-serving aspect of why ethics and trust matter in marketing – mainly, it’s good for long-term business.

Yes, exaggerated claims or misleading videos may help your sales (or stock) in the short term but over time the truth eventually comes out. And when it does, the damage to customer trust and brand reputation are almost impossible to come back from – not to mention the potential legal repercussions.

Consider this:

  • Trust is the Currency of Loyalty: When consumers feel misled or deceived, they're far less likely to make repeat purchases or advocate for your brand.
  • Authenticity Drives Engagement: Honest, transparent marketing fosters a genuine connection with consumers, leading to higher engagement and stronger brand affinity.
  • Ethical Marketing is Sustainable Marketing: Short-term gains from deceptive practices pale in comparison to the long-term benefits of building a brand on integrity.

How to Ensure Ethics in Marketing

Being honest or ethical in marketing is about more than just checking boxes. However, there are some specific actions every leader can take including:

  1. Fact-Check Everything: Before any claim goes public, ensure it's backed by verifiable data, research, or customer testimonials.
  2. Transparency is Key: Disclose any potential limitations, risks, or side effects associated with your product or service. Avoid fine print or obfuscation. If you have doubt then don’t make the claim.
  3. Be Mindful of Implied Claims: Even visuals or phrasing can create unintended impressions. Scrutinize every aspect of your marketing materials for potential misinterpretations.
  4. Customer-Centricity: View your product through the lens of the consumer. Are you delivering on the expectations you've set? Are you prioritizing their needs and interests? Do your reviews agree with you?
  5. Avoid Bait-and-Switch Tactics: Ensure that any promotions or offers are genuine and reflect the actual value proposition of your product.

However, while these are good starting points, sometimes things fail into a gray area which is where the problems often start.


Ethical Issues in Marketing – How Do I Know If My Marketing is Ethical?

One of the toughest things about ethics in marketing is things aren’t black and white. A lot of the times it boils down to nuanced situations that require careful consideration. Some common examples include:

  • Puffery vs. Deception: While some degree of subjective praise is acceptable, be wary of crossing the line into unsubstantiated claims.
  • Competitive Comparisons: When comparing your product to others, use accurate and up-to-date information. Avoid cherry-picking data or misleading comparisons.
  • Testimonials and Endorsements: Ensure that testimonials reflect genuine customer experiences and that endorsements are transparently disclosed.

In these cases, in addition to following the guidelines above, a simple gut check is often your best option. When you hear issues like Theranos or Nikola hit the news, there are always the people that said it felt wrong but did nothing. Avoid this by checking yourself and if it feels like off like you’re stretching the truth or misleading your audience, consider a different approach.


Ethical Marketing Examples

While the pressure to produce growth and sales are real and ever present for marketers in every organization, here a few great examples of companies that put their reputation first even in the face of potential financial hits or shortcomings.

  • Tylenol Recall (1982): When cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules caused several deaths, Johnson & Johnson didn't hesitate to issue a nationwide recall, pulling millions of bottles from shelves. Despite the massive financial hit, this decisive action demonstrated their unwavering commitment to consumer safety and solidified their reputation for integrity.
  • Domino's Pizza "Turnaround" Campaign: In 2009, Domino's faced harsh criticism for the quality of its pizza. Instead of denying or deflecting, they launched a campaign acknowledging their flaws and showcasing their commitment to improving recipes and ingredients. This bold transparency resonated with consumers and fueled a remarkable turnaround for the brand.
  • McDonald's "Our Food, Your Questions" Campaign: This campaign directly addressed consumer concerns about the quality and sourcing of McDonald's food. By answering questions honestly and transparently, they sought to dispel myths and build trust with skeptical consumers.
  • Netflix's Public Apology for Price Hikes: When Netflix increased prices and separated DVD rental from streaming services, customers were outraged. The company publicly apologized for their mishandling of the situation, acknowledging their mistakes and promising to do better in the future. This transparency and willingness to take responsibility helped to mitigate the backlash (somewhat ironically they made the same mistake years later).

Marketing Ethics By Example

As marketing leaders, we have a unique opportunity to set the tone for our teams and our organizations. By prioritizing ethical practices, we create a culture where honesty and integrity are valued, not just in marketing, but in every aspect of the business.

Some ways you can set the tone for your team include:

  • Equip your Team: Provide your team with the resources and knowledge they need to make ethical decisions.
  • Setting Clear Expectations: Establish and communicate clear guidelines on ethical marketing practices.
  • Rewarding Integrity: Recognize and celebrate team members who prioritize ethical behavior.

The Future of Ethics in Marketing and Business

In today's hyper-connected world, transparency and authenticity are more valuable than ever.

As marketing leaders, I believe we have a major responsibility to uphold these values and work to build brands that consumers actually trust – even when sometimes that might mean making some tough tradeoffs in the short term.