Keeping up with ethical expectations

Keeping up with ethical expectations

When it comes to ethics, marketers must answer to both the customer and the organisation. This article explores how marketers can spearhead internal change in response to external feedback and shifting best practice. 

Amid the hyperbole about ethical marketing sits someone whose job it is to make sense of data and outside opinion, while being the agent for change from within. Chances are that this person is the head of marketing who must face two ways simultaneously, aligning a sense of what customers want with what the company is prepared to do.

Certainly, the role of the marketer has grown substantially in recent years, and, in many cases, now includes responsibility for corporate social responsibility, and organisational ethics. ‘Ethical marketing’ is therefore a broad notion involving functions on both sides of the equation; marketers must ask what’s good for the workforce, for those toiling in the supply chain, for the wider environment, while discovering what issues really matter to customers.

Learn what consumers expect

Some clue to customers’ opinions regarding ethical marketing can be found in a recent Consumer Life survey of 1,500 online consumers aged 15 and over, from marketing insight business GfK. David Crosbie, research director, explains that over many years of running the report, clear trends emerge in terms of what customers want from brands. “Time and again, it shows their chief expectation is that companies carry out their primary function well, but also in a socially and ethically responsible fashion.” 

He confirms the most frequent expectation was for companies to “provide good jobs for people… [to carry out] their core functions responsibly, rather than engage in PR-focused virtue-signalling.”

But for some UK firms, being seen to be virtuous matters a great deal. Among the few to have appeared in a list of the world’s most ethical companies, published by Forbes and compiled by the Ethisphere Institute, are Marks and Spencer (2012-2018) and the Co-op (2013). Both are high-profile traders of consumer goods, a sphere in which ethical fashions are important.

Listen to customer feedback 

Another firm featured in Forbes’ list is Northumbrian Water Group (NWG). Within the organisational structure of NWG sit two water forums – groups of independent individuals tasked with ‘challenging thinking’ and initiating dialogue about sustainability issues.

Head of marketing Jennie Collingwood explains that part of her role is to act as a conduit for feedback between the boardroom and the forums. She explains the board “has always been receptive to discussions and recognises the commercial benefits of providing customer service informed by market insight.” 

Making it happen

Rita Clifton, a well-known brand expert within the advertising industry, believes the requirements of ethical behaviour boil down to firms doing business “in a non-destructive way”. If you don’t, “you’ll be found out with a speed that will take your breath away,” she says. “And in the digital age, the bar is getting higher.”

Certainly, giants like Tesco have taken note. The task of addressing ethical considerations, such as human rights and modern slavery in the supply chain, is overseen by a director who leads the responsible sourcing team of 45 people across 11 countries. Audits are conducted locally, and errant companies are expected to show signs of changing their ways within six months.

“The speed and scale of things have moved rapidly over the last 10 years,” explains Clifton. “The marketer now needs to be an artist and a scientist – marketers these days have their hands on so much data, and in great detail.”

Getting the message to the board

How can marketers impact crucial meetings where decisions are made? “Potentially, they may have more clout than, say, 10 years ago,” says Clifton. “They’re the facilitators with carrot and stick, passing on data that reflects attitudes and behaviour.”

Often, messages about customers’ ethical requirements can lead to a significant switch in how a brand conducts its business. “It’s very rare for a marketer to come into the boardroom and get booed,” says Clifton. “Everyone is charmed by the combination of great creativity and a grasp of data, particularly if that relates to business priorities. However, marketers need to understand not only how the brand works but every commercial area of the business and its processes.” When it comes to satisfying ethical demands, she adds, “you can’t just be the person going in and asking for more money.”

At root, marketers must answer to two masters: the business and the customer. Ethical priorities can be pushed from both sides, and establishing processes and priorities is the key to making sure these requirements are met by meaningful organisational change.

Andrew Mourant
Back to all