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Ethical Marketing: The Value of Brand Transparency

What it means to be an ethical marketer, why it matters, and how to get there.

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Consumers are demanding companies be honest and transparent. In a 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Report, consumers ranked trust in product, brand, and company attributes as an essential buying consideration. At the same time, studies show brands that are perceived as purposeful, or as having a positive impact, have grown at more than 2x the rate of other brands. 

As consumers make these interests and intentions heard, companies across the board are looking to quench the thirst for “social good” by adopting social campaigns, corporate social responsibility programs, sustainable practices, and other initiatives that signal to consumers, “we’re listening.” 

But in a world that loves easy, is creating a socially-conscious product or service enough to say a company is doing good for people and planet? In that context, shouldn’t we place equal moral value in how we sell as we do in what we sell? 

Honest marketing isn’t an oxymoron. Nor is it a financial disadvantage or abstract construct. Companies that prioritize marrying the best of marketing fundamentals with thoughtful ethical frameworks are seeing increases in loyalty, profit, and growth.

Marketing fundamentals can be done well, ethically, and profitably. To help do so, we’ve constructed a set of ethical marketing best practices. 

In this guide, you’ll redefine your marketing tactics and learn: 

  • What it means to be an ethical marketer

  • Why it matters in today’s business

  • How to build trustworthy and transparent ethical marketing practices

You’ll hear from Justin Belleme, the founder of B Corp Certified digital marketing agency JB Media, from Acumen Academy’s marketing team, and from our community of social entrepreneurs who place ethical marketing at the forefront of profitable business.

But first, a summary:

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What is Ethical Marketing?

Businesses today have a new weight to bear. In a recent Edelman Trust Barometer Report, business ranked as the most trusted institution when compared to NGOs, government, and the media. The report, which surveyed 27 countries, states businesses have gained trust by being “a guardian of information quality,” and are now the only institution considered to be both competent and ethical

We must refine what successful marketing looks like. Ethical marketing requires trading the short-term chase for month-over-month growth for a long-term outlook of growth in terms of building relationships with your brand’s prospects, customers, and advocates.

Here are some characteristics of ethical marketing: 

  • Prioritizing long-term growth over short-term vanity metrics

  • Holding tensions that create positive, open debate across your organization

  • A focus on honesty without avoiding the psychology and fundamentals of marketing

  • Refusing to forgo the hard work of communicating your product or service’s value and finding product-market-fit.

“Ethical marketing is the idea that what you do is an accurate reflection of who you are. If a company has values, and the presumption of its existence is that it's going to play a meaningful role in the world and have a positive impact on people's lives, then that's what you deliver––through your supply chain, through your HR department, and the culture you build through your employees, through the products you take to market and the way you innovate, through to the types of marketing you do, and ultimately to the impact work and community giving that you do,” said Simon Mainwaring, author of We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World.

Ethical marketing is the act of meaning what you say and doing what you mean in ways that resonate across all facets of your organization. To that end, how you incorporate ethical marketing into your daily operations will be unique to your organization. 

The ROI of Ethical Marketing

“Emotions are what drive customer behavior,” said customer agency, C Space. The companies that effectively address their customers’ emotional needs outperform competitors in profitable growth, customer loyalty, recommendations, and advocacy

But tugging on consumers’ heartstrings isn't enough to win them over. Customers want to know your brand is honest, transparent, and trustworthy. According to an Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report, 67% of people say, “A good reputation may get me to try a product, but unless I come to trust the company behind the product, I will soon stop buying it.” 

The most trusted brand is also the most profitable.

— Seth Godin, Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers

As consumers encourage businesses to do the right thing, they’re backing up their demand for ethics with actions. 78% say that it's a dealbreaker in their buying decision if a brand doesn't put customer interests ahead of its own profits. Meanwhile, 94% of consumers are likely to be loyal to a brand that offers complete transparency.

In businesses where razor thin margins can often prove success or failure, small swings in consumer preferences, when added together, become large competitive advantages. 

All businesses need an ethical marketing policy.

For a template on how to create your own ethical marketing policy, read JB Media's Guide to Ethical Marketing.

Ethical Marketing Best Practices

As consumers continue rewarding honest marketing, businesses will respond accordingly. But this instant gratification can force business leaders to only pay lip service to the ethics of marketing. 

Here are several practices to help keep your social enterprise honest. 

1. BE TRUE TO YOUR VALUES

In a crowded marketing space, it pays to be true to your values. The reward is customer loyalty and the strategy involves clear brand purpose and authenticity —  which means aligning your marketing with the values of your brand and product. 

DEFINING BRAND PURPOSE 

Brands recognized for high commitment to purpose have grown at more than twice the rate of others. In Kantar’s Purpose-Led Growth report, purpose is defined as “The reason why the brand exists. The impact you seek to have on people’s lives and the world they live in.”

Kantar offers three steps to market a clear brand purpose: 

  1. Articulation: define what you stand for and the role you want to play in the world

  2. Infusion: get leadership and culture buy-in to ensure execution and impact

  3. Amplification: go beyond brand and company, collaborate with game-changers to create a movement

For more on brand purpose, check out Debbie Millman’s Acumen Academy Master Class on Branding for Social Change where she teaches how to build a compelling brand identity.

BUILDING AUTHENTICITY FROM THE INSIDE OUT

Brand purpose falls flat if it's not authentic. In this report, Senior Marketing Manager at HubSpot Diego Santos says “Brands will need to develop their own personality and set of values in order to be able to have meaningful one-on-one interactions. That’s how they will stand out in a world of noise and limited attention.”

He advises, “Small and authentic will win over big and generic every time. Want more specifics? Pay attention to private groups, micro-influencers and social movements that are relevant to your brand.” 

Authenticity simply means you’re walking the walk; living the values you’re espousing, and wholly supporting the issue from the inside out.

— Do Something Strategic

If you’re struggling to find your authentic voice as a brand or a leader, read our guide on Learning the Art of Storytelling to Tell Stories That Matter for tips and inspiration.

ALIGNING YOUR MARKETING WITH BRAND AND PRODUCT VALUES

Joshua Maddox, former Associate Director at Acumen Academy, offers up an example: “If you’re working on clean energy, then you should understand the carbon footprint of your marketing efforts. For example, where do your servers live? Are you using vendors that support green initiatives? Are you really assessing how your product’s value exists in the world, and are you marketing that accordingly?”

Similarly, he says you should think through how your team’s structure, vendors, and use of budget align with your values. “If you're a global entity, are you hiring and raising up talent on your team in the cities in which you work? Are you holding your team accountable to honest copy, values laden content, and prioritizing diversity and inclusion across your workforce?” he said. 

Try answering these questions in the context of your own work to map out how you can start marketing in alignment with your brand and product values. 

2. BE TRANSPARENT

Transparency motivates consumer loyalty. A study by Label Insight shows 56% of consumers would be very likely to remain loyal to a brand for life if it offered complete transparency.

In marketing, it pays to consider that humans make decisions in relative, not absolute, terms. In his Acumen Academy Master Class on the Art of Selling, bestselling author Daniel Pink says, “Your product isn’t perfect. So, compared to what?” Customers don’t necessarily demand perfection. But they do expect you to be transparent about your product or service.

Acumen India Fellow Hitesh Kenjale is the co-founder of Desi Hangover, a social enterprise which sells handmade leather shoes made by artisan cobbler communities in India to help pull their families out of poverty.

India Fellow

Hitesh Kenjale

Hitesh is co-founder of DesiHangover, an organization working towards the upliftment of the 20,000+ families of the artisan cobbler communities in Kolhapur and ...
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When responding to ethical questions about some of their materials, Hitesh and the Desi Hangover team aim for transparency. “If we can’t get around it because there’s no other material that’s an alternative, we rather say that we’re using it. We’re conscious and we’re trying to find a solution for it. Rather than saying we’re 100% perfect. We’re human, bear with us, it’s a work in progress,” said Hitesh. 

KEEP A CLEAN AND OPEN HOUSE

As part of their transparent marketing strategy, Desi Hangover adopts an open door policy. “If tomorrow a customer walks in without notice, we’re able to show what’s happening. We invite the consumer to see the person who made the shoe and talk to them directly about the product,” said Hitesh. 

A company’s approach to their front of house will have more impact than any advertising campaign, promotion or rebrand could ever achieve.

—  C Space, Customer Experienced Report

Acumen Academy has a similar policy with our internal communications: “do not share anything you aren’t comfortable showing up on the front page of a newspaper.” Transparency should spill over across your organization so that, at any time, you can market transparently with confidence. 

3. BE HONEST

“The Acumen team spends a lot of time thinking about honesty in marketing,” said Joshua. “In my experience, you know you’ve found the right balance when there’s some tension on the team that creates an open debate,” he added.

The Acumen Academy marketing team practiced holding opposing values in tension during an internal debate around our “webinar” offerings and whether this language accurately reflected what we wanted to put out into the world. 

“Focusing on honesty doesn’t mean avoiding the psychology behind successful marketing. It also doesn’t give you an excuse to forgo the hard work of communicating your product or service’s value and finding the right product-market-fit,” said Joshua. 

The team soon traded the word “webinar” for “learning lab,” after determining that the former gave off a negative connotation. Now marketing our offerings as “learning labs,” we make deliberate efforts to live up to what we promise by delivering events where participants walk away with a new skill or perspective.

HONESTY PULSE CHECK

It’s easy to claim your efforts are honest. But it takes discipline, rigor, and at times internal conflict to be sure you’re not just sharing information to elicit excitement or false hope for the benefit of short-term gains.

Justin Belleme, the founder of digital marketing agency JB Media, offers this list to debate with your team:

  • Are we clearly communicating our product or service’s value without exaggerating or misleading our key audiences?

  • Does our language honestly communicate the features and benefits of our products and services?

  • Are we accurately quoting our customers, partners, and team when we share reviews or testimonials?

  • Is our use of data and examples honest and accurate when promoting our features, benefits, or the impact of our products and services?

  • Is there internal pressure to communicate dishonest information within your marketing and communications team or in the ranks of your organization’s leadership?

Read more from Justin on How to Build an Ethical Marketing Policy and access a template to create your own. 

HONESTY, THE BEST POLICY

An honest marketing strategy is easy to execute when things are going right. But what does it take to be an ethical marketer when things don’t go to plan? 

Acumen Bangladesh Fellow Nawshin Khair is the Managing Director at Aranya, a sustainable fair trade brand which promotes its naturally dyed artisanal products in local and international markets. When a leading daily newspaper wrote a feature on Aranya that turned out to offend an indigenous community Aranya partners with, Nawshin and her team stepped up. 

“We fell victim to misappropriation of culture. Even if it wasn’t our fault, we had to take responsibility and apologize to the indigenous community,” said Nawshin. “We had the article taken down, which was appreciated, as we were told not many people do that,” she added.

Bangladesh Fellow

Nawshin Khair

Nawshin is the Managing Director of two organisations; a sustainable fair trade brand Aranya, which promotes its naturally dyed artisanal products in local and ...
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As a marketer, playing a passive role when things go wrong is both unvirtuous and detrimental to your business. Mindsets like ‘The damage has been done,’ or ‘We’ll let the storm pass,’ are incongruous with what consumers expect from your brand today. In fact, being honest and admitting your mistakes can boost consumer trust in your business by 23%, which can mean a whole lot for your financial bottom line when 81% of consumers say “I must be able to trust the brand to do what is right.” 

“My takeaway from this is to revisit our brand guidelines and make a separate guideline for media houses,” said Nawshin. “Taking this step will help us prevent bad experiences like this from happening again.” 

For inspiration on creating an ethical marketing guideline, check out this Ethical Marketing Policy devised by JB Media. Remember, a successful ethical marketing strategy involves team buy-in, so don’t be afraid to give everyone a seat at the table and stimulate conversations that push the needle forward. 

4. BE COURAGEOUS

Ethical marketing requires a firm grasp on your belief system and the courage to act on those beliefs. Companies that do so are likely to reap financial benefits as 26% of young consumers often/always decide to purchase solely because they support the brand’s values. 

Nike made a dicey move in 2018 with its campaign to support Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racism and social injustice. But stepping up paid off. Nike’s online sales grew 31% in the days following the campaign and social-media engagements around Nike rose 1,678% during that time frame, according to marketing technology company 4C Insights

The anecdote above paints a marketing success story. But all companies, including Nike, don’t always get it right. Taking a stand on what your company believes in will always require courage, especially when you can’t see what outcomes await on the other side. Defining your company’s core beliefs can boost your courage to do the right thing at the right time. 

COURAGE TO REDEFINE SUCCESS

A business built on strong values has the power to redefine success in its industry, influence consumer behavior, and shape our world for the better.

Acumen Spain Fellow Pablo Urbano is the co-founder and COO of AUARA, a social enterprise which sells sustainably designed water bottles while using its profits to build water wells in places where access to safe drinking water is scarce. 

Spain Fellow

Pablo Urbano

Pablo Urbano is Co-Founder and COO of AUARA. He worked as a volunteer in the social enterprise Integra-e in Madrid, where he learned about the concept of social...
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“AUARA expresses a way of living,” said Pablo. “We want to change the act of consumption into something else. We want to spread awareness around the importance of clean drinking water and what it means to fund a project that gives access to clean water in places like Ethiopia,” he added.  

Purchasing an AUARA product invites you to think about the importance, and scarcity, of water around the world. You can scan a QR code on your AUARA water bottle to get details about the water projects you're funding through your purchase.  

“But we also have to sell a product based on quality, not just impact,” said Pablo. “Our impact work is not an excuse to lower the quality of our product. We want to compete both as a brand and a project,” he added.   

As the first social company in Spain to be certified by Social Enterprise Mark, and with award-winning sustainable packaging designs, AUARA’s website says it’s “Breaking the rules.” 

“Could we create a company that invests 100% of its dividends in a social mission? Could we disrupt the sustainability of packaging in massive markets?” 

“Yes.”

By redefining success in a multi-billion dollar industry, AUARA courageously tells consumers that product quality and impact are not mutually exclusive. In doing so, the company upholds its mission to change consumer behavior by making the act of buying water mean doing something good.

5. BE EFFECTIVE

Your ethical marketing strategy has to be effective to be heard. And as we’ve discussed in this guide, it pays to take a stand. But if you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll appeal to no one. Brands that know their audience and aren’t afraid to communicate at eye level outperform their peers

When adopting an ethical marketing communication strategy, consider how your message might be interpreted by different people in different contexts. Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign was a strategically provocative message to draw attention to consumer consumption “in a strong, clear way.” But first, they built up consumers to accept the challenge. 

“It’s really important that you not surprise your community. It can backfire when a company does something too unexpected and they don’t have the credibility. To evolve a brand, you have to take your community on the journey with you,” said Corley Kenna, Patagonia’s Director of Global Communications in a Forbes interview

Patagonia’s “do good” success lands on the fact that its value system permeates across the company. Employees are hired based on their commitment to the mission statement (which is inspired by the direct experience of Patagonia’s adventurous founder). Marketing efforts focus more on environmental awareness than on the brand itself, and its nonprofit branch helps other companies design an environment-first business model. 

“We always take the long view. We don’t look at things on a quarterly basis. Long-term thinking allows us to make smarter and more responsible decisions. We’ve found that when we put the planet first and do the right things for the planet, it winds up being good for business. It has proven itself over and over again,” said Corley.  

IMPACT STORYTELLING

Hitesh and his team at Desi Hangover have a guiding principle when marketing their impact stories: “Do not to exploit consumers' emotions.” 

“Consumers are buying products, but they also need to connect emotionally to that product. That’s where stories help connect them. But we’re very clear that we don't want to sell the product just based on impact stories,” said Hitesh. 

For Desi Hangover, the sharing of impact stories comes after a customer makes a purchase. Policies like these draw a clean line in the sand, which can prevent your marketing from crossing over to the less ethical side of impact storytelling. 

When done well, impact storytelling can be both ethical and effective. The key is to tell stories that matter, which is a hard-edge skill Acumen Academy strives to practice in our marketing decisions.

“We ask ourselves, if our marketing stood alone, without any next step to the offer, would it still be valuable, helpful, or interesting? In other words, if we weren’t selling anything, would this marketing still be impactful?” said Danielle Sutton on Acumen Academy's marketing team. 

6. BE COLLABORATIVE

Being an effective marketer requires collaborating with your customers and advocates. One strategy is to design a feedback loop to consistently hear from your customers and communicate back with them.

“Collaboration is about co-creating with your customers and audiences,” says Danielle. “It’s not just about making sure that you design really great services and products for them, and with them. It’s also about having conversations when it comes to marketing. That is, a two-way conversation, not just a one-way blast of information.” 

COLLABORATE FOR GOOD PARTNERSHIP

The ethics behind your marketing are only as good as your community says they are. For this reason, collaboration is important. It’s a give-and-take between what you’re asking from your audience and what you’re giving them in return. 

When Nawshin and her team at Aranya create marketing campaigns featuring the indigenous communities they work with, the company always shares the final product with the artisans for feedback. “It's very important that you also be inclusive of the community when you draw out your strategy. Taking the time to explain what you’re doing, and getting them excited about it, reassures you’re doing things with the right intentions,” said Nawshin. 

But when things go wrong, it’s equally important to have a strategy in place that retracts or defends your partnerships. When Pablo and his team at AUARA received backlash about an influencer who promoted their product, the social enterprise had to react quickly. 

“People came back to us saying, ‘Why are you using this person to promote your product? The clothes they purchase don't align with AUARA’s values.’ So, we’ve changed our channels to use influencers who are related to the brand,” said Pablo. 

Today, AUARA has an agreement criteria with partners, which guides the company’s choice in partnerships.  

How to Prevent Dishonest Marketing

Now that you have a list of principles to help guide your ethical marketing, let’s observe several dishonest marketing tactics and how to avoid them. 

Examples of dishonest marketing tactics:

  • False Advertising: exaggerating values and benefits

  • Using fake or overly doctored reviews and testimonials

  • Inflating results when creating messaging for partners or within your advertising

  • Bait and switch techniques that use false offerings to lure customers to a different offering

  • False discounts

  • Fake urgency claims 

AVOID IMPACT WASHING

Impact washing is similar to greenwashing and happens when a business exaggerates their positive impact to gain a marketing advantage or uses “feel good” marketing to distract from negative outcomes.

Impact washing is a broad topic that includes:

  • Communicating false promises or making unrealistic claims about expected results 

  • Sharing stories or creating impact initiatives that aren’t rooted in an authentic mission or intention for good – purely for the marketing benefits

  • Using a social impact initiative to distract from negative social or environmental problems caused by their core processes, products, or services

  • Exaggerating impact by inflating numbers, cherry-picking data, or focusing on stories that aren’t representative of overall outcomes

“Understanding how we’re measuring our impact is important. One good question to ask yourself when reflecting on impact washing is, ‘would I be doing this work if I could not talk about it?’” said Danielle Sutton, Acumen Academy’s Content Animator.

AVOID THE SAVIOR COMPLEX

The savior complex shows up when an organization operates from a place of false superiority in relation to the community it aims to impact. It can creep up in unsuspecting ways, such as in statements like “I or we have the solution to this issue, and are here to help.” This mindset can come from a place of privilege or a lack of understanding or sensitivity to the cultural norms and expectations of other communities.

Questions to ask to avoid the savior complex:

  • Have you taken steps to avoid any exploitation, appropriation, or stereotyping?

  • Do you seek out feedback on the appropriateness and sensitivity of your marketing content?

  • Are you using imagery that degrades instead of humanizing 

It takes a combination of self-awareness, inclusion, and empowerment of others to prevent releasing marketing campaigns that are insensitive. 

Avoid falling for the savior complex by including your communities in the problem-solving and creative processes that inform your marketing. 

REDEFINE SUCCESS 

Redefining successful marketing means rethinking preconceived notions of what success might mean in your industry, often a bar that can lead to decisions that prioritize profit over people. 

“It's really easy if all you need to do is make a profit from a widget. Success is then clearly defined by the CFO and the marketing team agrees on a set of growth KPIs that prove ROI. It's not so simple when ROI isn't the main measurement of success,” said Joshua.

As a social enterprise, you can’t drive towards ethical marketing without first defining your marketing success and how you measure it. 

“Until you understand exactly where you're going, you can't effectively pull levers to get there. This is by far the hardest part. Especially in organizations that put people above profit,” added Joshua. 

What does successful marketing mean to you and how will you measure it? You can start by thinking through these steps:

  • Determine who you’re marketing to.

  • Articulate and understand the vision of your organization, product, service, or offering. 

  • Agree upon a set of simple KPIs that your team agrees has potential to progress that vision.

  • Set up a way to measure and report on those KPIs.

  • When you have enough data to ask informed questions on those KPIs, start pulling levers to gauge consumer responses.

  • Adjust accordingly.  

USE THE POWER OF MARKETS

One unique way to avoid dishonest marketing tactics is to use markets as a ‘listening tool.’ In other words, let the reactions and actions of your brand’s prospects, customers, and advocates inform the decisions you make about your product, service, or offering. 

“When we market our products, we try to be conscious about one big thing. As the world is progressing, these communities we’re trying to support are the ones falling behind. We as leaders need to make sure this doesn’t happen by considering them in whatever types of business models that we have,” said Hitesh. 

Listening to markets through user-centered strategies such as focus groups, surveys, and one-on-one interviews helps you understand how the price of your product, its design features, and your marketing tactics impact your community.

All businesses need an ethical marketing policy.

For a template on how to create your own ethical marketing policy, read JB Media's Guide to Ethical Marketing.

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