As difficult as it might be to describe what ethics is in terms of marketing, it’s simple to describe what it isn’t.
For example, if a product pricing landing page conveys inaccurate information, or conceals the price entirely. Or when an enticing advertisement on social media alleges that a product will do X, Y, and Z – but when you order it, you realize it can only do Y.
These kinds of questionable, dishonest, and nefarious marketing techniques are perfect examples of what it means for a company to behave unethically.
While unethical marketing can potentially be successful in the short term, it’s not a viable long-term strategy. Eventually, customers will lose trust in your brand altogether, and you’ll discover that it’s hard to find brand advocates who are inclined to spread awareness about your products or services through word-of-mouth marketing.
In a nutshell, unethical marketing will make a marketer’s job much more difficult in the long run, not easier.
In order to ensure that you’re observing best practices to create ethical solutions to all your marketing challenges, it’s important to evaluate the crucial role that ethics plays in modern marketing – and leadership overall.
Ethics in Leadership
We should probably begin by defining what ethics truly means.
While it’s easy to characterize ethics as “the difference between right and wrong,” it actually goes a bit deeper than that.
The concept of “right” and “wrong” is generally a somewhat subjective one. What’s “right,” culturally speaking, in the United States might be strongly discouraged in Asia, and vice versa.
According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, the term “ethics” can be defined in two distinct ways: “Well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific values. Ethical standards also include those that [command] virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty.”
Additionally, “ethics refers to the study and development of one’s ethical standards. Feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one’s standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded.”
In the framework of marketing, ethics relates to the practice of nurturing fairness, honesty, and empathy in all marketing pursuits.
One of the simplest ways to support ethics in a business sense is to make sure that it’s rooted in your company’s culture and values.
It’s not enough just to have a set of principles and a clearly defined mission statement. Genuinely ethical companies have an obligation to put these values into practice every day.
Joan Harrington, Director of Social Sector Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, explains further: “The key to integrating ethics in organizations is leadership. The leadership must set the example by living the organizational values and incorporating them into all aspects of the business.
Having a code of ethics or a set of values in a handbook is not enough to shape an ethical culture. Employees need to be trained on, or at least exposed to, how to make ethical decisions. Ethics is not about what you think is right versus what I think is right. It is how we – in all of our different relationships – ought to behave.”
In a perfect scenario, Harrington proposes, an entire organization will undergo ethical decision-making training. But there are certain aspects of an organization that are higher-risk for ethical issues than others – for example, engineers occupied with projects involving artificial intelligence that could affect millions of people. For those higher-risk groups, these ethical decision-making training sessions should be compulsory, not voluntary.
“This is not to say that there may be more than one ethical response,” Harrington continues, “but it is not purely subjective. In training, people need to be exposed to real-life situations, relevant to their jobs, so they can really work through how to identify, approach, and decide ethical issues.”
To foster a sincerely ethical culture, it’s important that leaders embody ethical behaviors and values, build a strong community, and develop ethical systems in which all employees can prosper.
To do this, leaders must “use goals, mission, and values to make decisions about compensations and other rewards, like promotions,” says Ann Skeet, Senior Director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center.
Fundamentally, ethical leadership needs to be integrated into the processes, not simply a side note. Thus, it isn’t just the responsibility of one person to speak up and say that something doesn’t seem fair. Rather, the foundation of the organization needs to be built upon ethical mainstays, including integrity and equity, so that each business decision is executed with these principles top of mind.
Ethics in Marketing
Ethical marketing involves a marketer’s obligation to make sure all marketing campaigns abide by core ethics principles, including integrity, humility, and honesty – both inside and outside the organization.
To further distinguish between internal and external marketing ethics, consider this example.
Suppose that your marketing team enlists the services of a design agency for a new marketing campaign. In the midst of the campaign, your team finds out that the agency doesn’t treat its employees fairly, and that it doesn’t square well with your ideals with regard to environmental and social responsibility.
Even if your customers are unaware of this association, it’s still in your best interests to sever your working relationship with the agency as quickly as possible, and realign yourself with agencies that support the same values you’ve established for your team internally.
Just as important, of course, is the public-facing element of ethical marketing. This includes making sure you don’t exaggerate or flat-out lie about your products or services – including pricing, performance, release date, current customers, etc. – in order to entice new customers.
In addition, ethical marketing involves treating workers equitably, using renewable resources, and supporting environmental or social causes deemed to be important to your brand.
Consider Toms, the notable footwear brand, which gives away $1 for every $3 it makes and has donated nearly 100 million pairs of shoes to people in need since 2006.
Harrington concludes: “Marketing has its own, built-in ethical issues. For nonprofits, do they do ‘storytelling’ about their clients in an ethical way when they are engaged in fundraising? How are they representing their clients? Have they included clients in deciding how to present them? Are they operating from stereotypes? For all organizations, to figure out whether marketing is ethical, you’ll want to ask whether marketers are operating transparently. Is the product accurately described? Is the marketing ahead of the actual product? And is there undue pressure on potential consumers?”
In 2020, ethical marketing is more crucial than ever.
Take into consideration, for example, that it costs five to twenty-five times more to gain a new customer than to retain an existing one. Brand loyalty is vital to the enduring success of your company.
Furthermore, consumers don’t trust businesses these days to the extent that they did previously. As a matter of fact, 81% of people report that they trust their friends and family’s opinions over advice from a business, 69% distrust advertisements, and 71% are skeptical of sponsored ads on social networks.
In essence, there’s only one long-term solution to the ever-increasing challenge of a cynical customer base: ethical marketing.
Indeed, it’s essential to bear in mind, ethical marketing should have an effect on every aspect of your marketing strategy, not just one or two areas. You must demonstrate honesty, transparency, and integrity in every instance – from the Facebook posts you publish, to the product presentations you give.
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