What is ethical marketing?

What is ethical marketing?

Ethical marketing is about continued standards of conduct, not a singular goal or fixed set of principles.

‘Life is a journey, not a destination’, as the motivational poster says. Something similar might be said of ethical marketing.

Ethics is a slippery topic – it’s hard to define its meaning precisely, never mind quantify it. At its most simplistic, it can be defined as being ‘the moral principles that govern behaviour or the conducting of an activity’. But what are those moral principles? Are they the same for everyone?

Take charity for example – people give to all kinds of causes, because everyone has a different opinion about who is deserving of help. Where does that leave ethics?

So, let’s consider what ethics might mean for marketing in light of this.

Marketers always, essentially, have two bosses: the boardroom and the customer. Marketing’s job is to satisfy the demands of both, and that means looking after profits and people. That alone could be regarded as having ethical principles. But it’s not that straightforward, even when it might appear so.

For example, imagine if a clothing brand wants to provide better value for the customer, while delivering increased profits for the board. To do so, it switches its production base from the UK to Asia, lowering production costs. These savings are passed on to the customer in terms of lower retail prices, while at the same time increasing profits for the company. A win-win situation? Not necessarily.

What are the employment conditions for the new factory workers? What are their hours? How much are they paid? Are they free to resign? And what of the former employees in the UK, and of the original factory’s contribution to the local economy? These are all ethical considerations that also directly affect customers’ experience of a brand and, as a result, profits.

Ethical marketing means many things to many people, and it changes over time. If there’s no industry-wide definition, then that’s because it should be thought of as an umbrella term that covers all business and marketing in all sectors. It might mean any of the following:

  • Having a sense of purpose that goes beyond simply making money and keeping customers satisfied by offering only an MVP
  • Implementing a set of ethical standards to avoid sanctions from regulatory agencies
  • Developing corporate responsibility or sustainability programmes
  • Building and maintaining an organisational culture that constantly considers its impact on employees, the supply chain, customers and the wider environment
  • Having a commitment not only to ‘do no harm’, but actually to ‘do more good’, or ‘be a force for good’

Who decides on the particulars within these rather open-ended commitments? The C-suite? Consumers? Regulators? Wider society and culture? The answer is ‘all of them’. And in the middle is marketing – the eyes, ears and mouthpiece of the organisation. Its role it to communicate the wider social and environmental needs that are valued in the world beyond business, and ensure that business can support them, now and as they develop in future.  

Ethical marketing might be founded on principles, but it must be structured around conduct. Again, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Want to learn how to discriminate between good and bad marketing practice? Then take a look at our one-day Fundamentals of Marketing course.

Martin Bewick Content Lead CPL
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