September 24, 2022

What does ethical marketing mean?

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I could start this post with a technical definition of what ethics is, or – especially after all the reading I’ve been doing this summer – an academic definition or clarification of of what ethical business, ethical branding, ethical marketing or ethical tech are understood to be in the literature, and the subtle differences between each of them. But there would be no point in doing that.

I will leave the academic talk for research papers and leave the overarching causes and consequences for a different time. Today I want to talk about ethical business as it affects me, my clients and most people I interact with on a daily basis. We are not policymakers; we don’t have the ear of the regulatory bodies; we are not marketing gurus filling out stadiums. We are business owners trying to find the sweet spot at the intersection of running our business and doing the right thing.

Ethical marketing starts with you

A brand is more than just a logo. A brand is defined by what it does and how it behaves, which in turn is defined by the brand ethos or core values. This is the why of your organization, and in most cases, you define it.

I have had customers in the past that when asked were able to produce a prim and proper document with their mission and vision statements, their corporate objectives and core values. When pressed further on them I learn they had been copied from a template somewhere on the internet, rewritten based on their competitors’ websites or their accountant had an all in plan that included “creating the company, putting together a business plan including mission, vision and blah blah blah…”.

This is what I mean when I say ethical marketing starts with you. If your sole business goal is to make money and sell more, then your foundation is already in trouble and no amount of Photoshop will make up for that.

So the first step of having an ethical business and an ethical strategy is to put in the work; look in the mirror and think, why are you doing this? what each and every decision that you make in your business is motivated by? Why do you lead an organization instead of working somewhere else? Why should people engage with you and not other brands? Only when you have your why, your ethos and are ready to stand by it, only then can you begin to lay out an ethical business, branding, marketing or digital strategy.

Ethical marketing walks the walk

It doesn’t really matter if your why is heartfelt and thought through, if there is no consistency between your words and your actions. Understanding marketing as everything involved in creating, delivering, communicating and exchanging products or services, we can see how critical it is for ethical marketing that every step from material sourcing, supply chain management, hiring practices, working conditions, to pricing, promotions, advertisement and post sale service are working together towards satisfying that why.

The second step after finding your ethos and your why is to make sure you are living by it in every aspect of your business. You might have heard the terms greenwashing, wokewashing, ethicswashing floating about; these terms are used to describe brands who think ethical marketing is about slapping a green message on their label and the job is done.

The truth is, that upholding your ethos throughout every aspect of your business, even when it means your bottom line takes a hit, even when it means making tough choices, even when it means sacrificing something you want. As Bill Bernbach said, “A principle isn’t a principle unless it costs you something”

Ethical marketing is a journey

After you have taken the first two steps to figure out what your ethos is, why you do what you do and what principles you uphold in your day to day business, then comes the moment when you start communicating your message. If you did the first two right, the strategy on how to do it should be clear, and more importantly, your message will be authentic and real.

Once you know that part of your ethos and you know that you are prioritizing people and planet over profit, then it’s simple to extend that ethos to your marketing. Making sure your messages aren’t harmful or inconsiderate, making sure you’re not pushing over consumption and resource depletion, making sure you aren’t manipulating and exploiting people and resources with your channels should come naturally.

As long as your thoughts and your actions are there to back up your words, the core of an ethical marketing strategy is present. All that’s left is a bit of research, and that is what I mean by a journey. Facts change, technologies change, and our knowledge and awareness of the impact of our actions changes over time.

You won’t get it perfect from the get go. You might never get it perfect, hell, I’m sure I won’t, but as long as you know your ethos and are willing to do what it takes to live that ethos at a cost, you are on the right path and it’s all a journey. Sometimes the key really is as simple as a Maya Angelou quote, and this is definitely the case with ethical marketing.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Maya Angelou