What is Ethical Marketing?
Ethical marketing is a strategy where a company portrays strong moral values such as transparency, honesty, responsibility, and fairness to reach a target market that aligns with those values.
Companies that practice ethical marketing show the public that they aren’t only about profits, but also stick to ethical principles with actions and marketing decisions that are considered noble.
Unethical marketing, on the flip side, thinks “anything goes as long as we make a profit”. You’ll often find it where there are vague case studies, doctored data, disregard for customer privacy, UX dark patterns, purchased awards, etc — devoid of marketing ethics.
It’s easy for a company to appear to practice ethical marketing while engaging in misinformation and subterfuge behind the scenes. That’s why we need to go deeper than the legacy definition of ethical marketing; deeper than using a brand’s ethics and values as a promotional strategy.
So, true ethical marketing is:
Marketing consciously embodies a sense of responsibility, honesty, fairness, integrity, and leadership. It means the ethical brand is mindful of its community, understands its impact, and shows its willingness to contribute to the social good.
For example, you hear terms like socially conscious and environmentally conscious.
Let’s pick “environmentally conscious” apart. It means your business is aware of the effect its operations have on the environment and takes measures to offset that and even goes overboard in leaving the environment better than you found it.
And what about “socially conscious”? Does it sound like corporate social responsibility (CSR) to you? That’s because it’s close, but there’s more to it.
Prioritizes people over profit
Your business interacts with people every day — partners, vendors, staff, customers, investors, government officials, people in the neighborhood, and even school children who come around on field trips.
How does your company treat them? What feelings do they leave with after interacting with your brand? Is profit always on the pedestal regardless of how that affects people?
Ethical marketing doesn’t stop at doing and saying, it is also about being. When the business model prioritizes revenue and profits over the welfare of its stakeholders and also wants to practice ethical marketing, there’s conflict.
Walks the talk
Repeating what’s above: Ethical marketing is about being, not just doing and saying. When marketing ethically, embed brand values in all business operations, not marketing efforts alone.
Instead of paying lip service to it on your “About Us” page or other marketing communication, let those principles define your identity.
True to the original purpose
You’ve probably heard the quote that goes, “Action becomes habits and habits become character.” If you consistently do one thing, it becomes something you’re known for and eventually defines your character.
It’s the same for a business that wants to practice true ethical marketing. It has to constantly return to the company-wide “why” when making business decisions, such as where to advertise, whom to collaborate with, movements to support, etc.
How is it Different From Regular Marketing?
To win over customers and boost sales, regular marketing tactics often use persuasion strategies that may be considered manipulative. For example, using fear tactics or faking scarcity to get a sale.
This has gone on for so long that customers are becoming aware of them and are more conscious about the brands they buy from. Any hint of unethical practice is now a turnoff. And that’s not all.
Today’s buyers are conscious of climate change, social injustice, animal cruelty, and health issues. Because of these, they are on the lookout for companies that contribute to the problem as well as those that help to alleviate those problems.
While traditional marketing might want to skirt over these issues and dive headfirst into “here’s why our product is awesome, buy from us”, ethical marketing addresses the additional criteria in today’s buyers’ purchasing decisions, such as
- “Does their production process pollute the environment? What are they doing about it?”
- “Do they use animals to test their cosmetics?”
- “Are they fair to the farmers who produce their raw materials?”
- “Is this packaging recyclable?”
This is where the temptation to pay lip service rears its ugly head. But the truth usually gets out, as it has in the past. Companies that claim they support a social cause when they don’t, get accused of “woke-washing”.
Those that claim to be environmentally friendly when they’re actually damaging the environment and doing nothing about it, get the “greenwashing” tag.
And if you say you have a strong purpose to do social good only to win the admiration of buyers but don’t live and breathe that purpose, you’re “purpose-washing”.
Ethics in Marketing and Analysis
Marketing runs on data. To market effectively to your target audience, you need to understand them — their pains, motivations, and objections. You get that from data. Sometimes customers give you this data willingly or consent to you collecting their data, or you get the data from other sources.
That’s where the ethical dilemma is — how you acquire this data and what you do with it. Sometimes, black is as clear as day, such as obtaining data under false pretenses or using it to profile customers for preferential or bad treatment.
It can also be white (the ethical way) such as collecting customer information using surveys to improve products and customer experience.
The rest of the time, marketers have to navigate the ethical gray area. For example, when they claim their organization is the best in their field without a proper unbiased third-party assessment.
There are boundaries in gathering and using information for customer profiling. In some regions, businesses don’t need to burden themselves with setting those ethical boundaries for themselves. The law does it.
For example, in Europe, there’s the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and in the United States, there’s the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), Nevada SB 220, and California Privacy Rights Act 2023.
Ethical marketing has to encompass privacy-compliant analytics. Marketers have a responsibility to know, understand, and commit to ethical behavior and to embody values that respect customers and their information.
How is Ethical Marketing Done?
The best way to do ethical marketing is to be an ethical company. The public is smart and will see through surface-level activities if it doesn’t tally with your brand image.
Ethical companies seem to effortlessly attract customer loyalty. That’s because they keep the promises they make and are transparent enough for the public to assess them.
There are opportunities to be transparent about your values and promote your ethical marketing initiatives on your website, social media pages, adverts in print and other media, etc. You can:
- Champion sustainability practices in all you do
- Advise on the safe use of your product on your packaging
- Avoid deception and questionable claims in your marketing materials
- Donate to a charity that has a positive impact on your community
- Speak kindly and fairly of your competitors
- Take action against social injustice
- Support the well-being of your employees and customers
- Adopt technologies that reduce your emissions
- Respect customer privacy in your marketing process
- Use justifiable and fair pricing
- Analyze the market to meet demand with the right supply (no artificial shortages)
- Talk about your competition without making false claims, or even
- Address ethical issues in your industry
These are just a few ideas. If the principles of ethical marketing (transparency, honesty, responsibility, and fairness) are indeed a part of your company and everybody abides by them, more ideas that are unique to your business, industry, and locality will present themselves.
3 businesses practicing ethical marketing
Here are 3 examples of businesses that use ethical marketing practices to align with their target audience, build brand loyalty, and maintain a supportive customer base:
At Convert, we strive to leave the planet better than we found it. That’s the talk, here’s the walk: We are 15x carbon negative, promote privacy in online experiments, uphold equality, and donate to charity regularly.
And that’s not all. We choose our friends carefully. We only work with other conscious businesses. Our software doesn’t run on sites that spread hate, divisiveness, prejudice, and violence.
So when the opportunity comes to stand up to these values, we make decisions that stay within those ethical boundaries. One time, we even turned down $100K in revenue.
2. Conscious Coffees
The coffee industry is a $20 billion that’s been plagued with ethical issues. There’s the maltreatment of coffee farmers by middlemen and the damaging effect unregulated coffee farming has on the environment.
But Conscious Coffees decided to not just have “conscious” in its name but to change lives and protect the planet at every point along the supply chain.
They eliminated the middleman with an alternative trading model. And they empowered farmers in several community outreach initiatives by teaching them new techniques to maximize yield and engage in fair trade economic practices with suppliers.
Are you bold enough to tell your customers not to buy your product? Patagonia is — because their prime commitment is to the wellbeing of the planet.
Instead, they encourage their customers to reduce, repair, reuse, and recycle, reducing the number of clothes that end in landfills courtesy of the fashion industry.
The fashion industry also generates 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. But Patagonia is anti that. Instead of a Black Friday campaign to buy more, they launched a “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign asking consumers to take a pledge against consumerism.
They run other marketing campaigns like this including one that donates 1% of sales to pro-environment projects. This is an eco-friendly brand to the core that has surpassed $1 billion in annual revenue since 2017.