marketing ethics


There are those among us who would argue that branding, marketing, and commercial communication are almost by definition – unethical. While I would argue that branding, marketing, and communication can be unethical – and often are unethical – they need not be so. It may well be unethical to promote fast food to children, alcohol to teenagers and tobacco to anyone – but marketing need not do any of these things. While I would agree that it is unethical to dream up a product and then use consumer insights to create a demand that promotes un-necessary consumerism, branding, marketing, and communication need not and should not do any of these things. Branding, marketing, and communication can – and should be entirely ethical.

  1. Avoid unethical branding – create a culture and deliver. 

There are few things I find more unethical in marketing or indeed in commerce more broadly than making promises or claims about a product that will not be delivered. I suspect I am not alone in this. Being promised the world and receiving an atlas is not only bad for consumers – it is bad business. It kills conversion rates, repeat purchasing and referrals. It can kill any perception that a business is ethical.

Nowhere have I found this experience more prevalent than with telecommunication providers. Whether it be Telstra, Optus, II Net or Vodaphone, I have tried them all and find them all over promise and under deliver. I have used them all and have never received service standards close to that promised. Their only saving grace is that they are as bad as each other.

Is there anything more central to ethical or indeed effective marketing than delivering as promised or claimed – not just in terms of the product perse – but also in terms of the service received when making the purchase? That is surely one of the real strengths of brands like Ikea and Apple. There almost always deliver as promised. That is why Apple is the world’s most valuable brand ($US264 billion). Consumers trust Apple, and that translates into consistent sales, and that, in turn, translates into brand value.

Research suggests that 81% of consumers need to trust a brand before purchasing it. Trusting a brand means expecting that when purchased, the product will do what it claims to do – always, or almost always. It also involves providing, as indeed Apple do, the standard of customer service promised. Research suggests that 73% of people consider the customer experience before trusting or developing a loyalty for a brand.

Creating a brand that delivers as promised and offering a customer experience as promised is central to marketing ethically and being seen to do so. Sadly – this is an area where SO MANY Australian businesses – like Myer (a once-great brand) – fall short. 

  1. Avoid unethical marketing – co-create a great product.

There are few things more unethical from a marketing perspective than creating the product you want to create (for whatever reason) and then designing a campaign to convince consumers that they want it – especially when they certainly don’t need it, didn’t want it before you started advertising and may not be able to afford it. This approach to business plays into the perception that business is all about maximising profit at any cost.

There are few sectors where this is more prevalent than fast food, where overweight people of all ages are convinced through clever and often misleading advertising, slick merchandising. The pumping of food smells into the atmosphere outside a store – to buy fake food that is not good for them (in ANY quantity) contains carbohydrates they don’t need and will hasten the decline in their health without giving them any real benefit. Worse than this are promoting these fake foods to children and promoting tobacco to anyone. Worse still – are business owners trying to rationalise such behaviour. None of this is ethical, and trying to rationalise it is self-serving.

This is not to suggest that marketing food is unethical. Some great Japanese restaurants in most cities sell low sugar, low fat, low carbohydrate, and high-quality food. It is most certainly not. It is not even to suggest that marketing fast prepared low-cost food is unethical. There are some very healthy burgers on the market. There is, in my view, nothing unethical about marketing high-quality salads – except, of course, when you have researched to find out how to attract customers in to buy the salads, knowing that your merchandising will ensure they buy the burger. Using consumer behaviour insights in this way reflects poorly on marketing and business.

Perhaps the most ethical marketing approach involves working with customers to co-create products that meet their needs and tastes while protecting their health and well-being. It is surely more ethical to market what the audience wants and needs, rather than convincing them and using consumer insights to cause them to buy what they don’t need; I would love to have the strength to avoid and really should not be purchasing. Many of these businesses are exploiting their customers’ weaknesses – slowly helping them to contract type 2 diabetes.

Which businesses do you consider more ethical – Apple or McDonalds, the local hamburger bar or Hungry Jacks? 

  1. Avoid unethical communication – be honest and transparent. APRIL 09

It would not surprise any reader to learn that 96% of people surveyed in one study do not trust advertising. Indeed, consumers are more inclined to believe social media comments than advertising. Indeed, one study found that 85% of consumers believe online reviews as much as they do the referrals of friends and relatives.

I would argue that this is partly related to the propensity for advertisers to be less than authentic and less than transparent. Research suggests that 86% of consumers consider authenticity in developing an attraction to a brand. Brands promising one thing in advertising and delivering a fraction of it in real life – is ubiquitous. It is almost an expectation – so much so that when a brand delivers on the advertising promises, it is memorable.

This is not to suggest that advertising perse is the problem. Research found that 45% of consumers believe advertising could positively contribute – raising awareness of good causes. Some 31% believe advertising can encourage people to make positive changes, and 30% believe advertising can contribute by promoting products or services that are good for the planet or society.

It is not advertising; that is the problem, but rather the lack of authenticity in advertising, or more accurately – the lack of honesty and transparency in most advertising. From a consumer’s perspective, there is nothing wrong (or unethical) with the promotion of a product – so long as the product is consistent with their values and the message in the advertising is honest and transparent.

Keep advertising – but advertising products your target audience wants, offer a clear competitive advantage and be authentic, honest, and transparent. STOP BULLSHITTING

Ethics are becoming increasingly important to consumers. Consumers want the ethical standards of brands to align with their own. Consumers are expecting marketers to behave more ethically. Consumers will reward businesses that genuinely align ethical standards with those of the audience.

There are no silver bullets in marketing. Ethics are not a silver bullet. In 2021 however, ethics might represent an opportunity for businesses wanting to establish a sustainable competitive advantage relevant to consumer expectations.

We are, however, in an AGE OF ALIGNMENT in which consumers expect business to behave ethically and will tend to spend with businesses that share their values and ethical standards.

Ethical standards are most certainly becoming important for all businesses. Research has conclusively demonstrated that consumers, staff and investors are attracted by businesses that stand for something. Ethical standards need to be reflected in all businesses’ values – and branding in 2021 and beyond.


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