The five new rules of ethical marketing

Sustainable and principled business practices make marketing more effective

Ever-increasing numbers of conscious consumers are forcing a change in the way that marketing departments behave. The old days of creating consumer demand and fuelling consumerism are ending. Companies are now required to be more accountable and responsible in their marketing, both reflecting ethical behaviour in general and disclosing specific details like product origin, supply chain, life span and disposal.

Challenging as this can be, the good news is that when a company does behave ethically, its marketing has extra credence and authenticity. Rather than scrabbling around for gimmicks and clichés to sell more, businesses can focus on the genuinely interesting things they are doing: the marketing efforts of an ethical business are self-defining, unforced and, therefore, genuinely engaging. There are five rules to follow.


Become a better business

The first rule is simple, but it’s also the hard bit. You need to thoroughly, and honestly, review your organization and establish a plan to become a better and more sustainable business, to the benefit of the environment and society. It is widely accepted that companies have responsibilities beyond simply making profit, but there are many in the c-suite who would still prefer to ignore the moral debate, so it’s important at the very start to make both the ethical and the financial point.

The case for adopting more sustainable business practices is strong, including driving long-term revenue, reducing costs and managing risk – as well as better marketing. Businesses perceived as socially responsible are rewarded with more satisfied and loyal customers, while employees are attracted to purpose-led organizations. Companies can rarely become perfectly ethical overnight, but all businesses can start on the journey.


Challenge conventional behaviours

A new ethical approach to marketing means challenging many of your existing habits and behaviours. Start by reconceiving of your customers: they’re not ‘consumers with lifestyles’, they’re people, with lives. The mindset may need to change around products, too: shift from cradle-to-grave products to services. Source locally where possible, or ‘glocally’, rather than globally, and tailor your services regionally rather than having a one-size-fits-all approach.

Then there are specific marketing and communications behaviours. Out goes the conventional emphasis on product end-benefits, paid advertising, selling, and one-way communication. In comes a focus on purpose, word-of-mouth recommendations, educating and empowering people, and creating community.

Of course, this is all built upon change in corporate behaviour: from secretive to transparent, reactive to proactive, independent and autonomous to interdependent and allied with stakeholders, and competitive to cooperative. As author CS Lewis put it: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”


Do not greenwash

Greenwashing is seeking to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is. It is a huge mistake. Your company doesn’t have to be perfect, but you absolutely do need to be honest. False claims will be exposed, and all-important trust will be lost overnight. Be proud of your positive actions, but be up front about what you need to work on. Be specific: tell customers what you plan to do, and when.


Avoid too little, too triumphant, too late

Many companies come unstuck when they fail to understand their place in the bigger picture. When planning campaigns and content, ask the following: Is it too little? Is this claim insignificant in the grand scheme of things? Will it simply highlight bigger areas of the business that are currently unethical? An example would be companies proudly reporting they had removed plastic straws from their business, while ignoring all the other single-use plastics they use.

Is it too triumphant? Is this an isolated claim that we are making an overly big fuss about? Could this provoke negative customer feedback because it feels incongruent with other, unethical, parts of the business? For example: companies trumpeting their charitable giving, while continuing to follow unethical practices elsewhere in the organization or supply chain.

Is it too late? Have our competitors been doing this for ages? Does this simply highlight how late we are to the party? For example: companies claiming to care deeply about customers’ data and requesting that they re-subscribe for unique offers, ‘coincidentally’ in the very month that new data protection laws come into effect.


Embrace storydoing and data-telling

In his book, Authentic Marketing, Larry Weber highlights the importance of bringing out the human side of your brand to forge deeper connections with customers. He talks of ‘storydoing’, moving your organization from telling stories to being an active part of them, and ‘data-telling’: showing what you are doing to solve problems and make the world a better place.

It is important to have clear and realistic objectives that your company can accomplish in a certain time period. Track and measure how you are doing: quantifiable data is important to validate your progress, and should be included in the narrative. Use it to create powerful visuals, charts, graphs and marketing claims.

Change for good

Ethical marketing offers the opportunity to create deeper and more authentic connections with your customers – but there can be no faking it. If you want its benefits, you need to honestly evaluate your business’s ethical credentials, and implement a robust improvement plan that resonates with your stakeholders – customers, employees, shareholders and partners.

Stick to the truth in your communications, both internally and externally; be honest, be human, and use verifiable data to support the progress you are making. It might not be easy, but it will make you a better business: for society, the planet, and for your bottom line.

— Sarah Duncan is a business development consultant, trainer, and author of The Ethical Business Book (LID Publishing, 2019),

— Illustration by Neil Stevens