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The Do’s and Don’ts of Ethical Marketing

Ethics is not something marketers can afford to ignore. More than ever, customers expect their favorite brands to have positions on relevant social issues. One report found that 64% of Americans make purchasing decisions based on the brand’s ethical values and authenticity. Meanwhile, 42% will stop doing business with companies that respond poorly to controversial social issues.

The inverse is also true — when brands are transparent and ethical, people are far more willing to become loyal customers. What marketers must remember is that there’s a right and wrong way to speak up on current events. Here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.

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Do put someone in charge of ethics

One reason why brands keep stumbling into ethical quandaries is they treat ethics as a side issue. Many companies will focus on growth or profit, while sustainability or diversity are secondary considerations. This is especially true in large brands where departments silo responsibilities and are not fully aware of what happens across the organization.

One way to address this issue is to create a dedicated leadership role for the entire brand. The cosmetic brand Lush, for example, has an Ethical Director who ensures products are cruelty-free, BPA-free, and sustainably sourced. Interestingly, Lush prioritizes ethics to the point of refusing to advertise, preferring to let its positive reputation spread by word-of-mouth.

Prioritizing ethics prevents brands from letting controversial issues slide, keeping them at the forefront of every internal conversation. Ethical directors can also help monitor supply chains or seek out diverse voices for the team. Such a position can also ensure brand messaging is consistently ethical, especially on channels like social media.

Don’t overreach with empty messaging

Ethical marketing is about more than sharing positive platitudes or a Black Lives Matter hashtag. We’ve seen countless brands try and attach themselves to social movements, only to retract the campaign because it does more harm than good. In our social media-driven age, critics will find gaps in your brand messaging that contradict your brand history. In a worst-case scenario, your pleasant advertisement may become a full-fledged scandal.

In 2018, McDonald’s experienced that worst-case scenario firsthand. It tried to celebrate International Women’s Day by flipping its iconic arches upside-down. Social media commenters pushed back almost immediately, noting the chain didn’t offer women equal wages or paid family leave. More recently, Twitter received backlash when it formally adopted the Black Lives Matter hashtag — critics reminded everyone that the platform frequently fails to ban white supremacists.

To be clear, brands should not stay silent on important issues, but they shouldn’t be blatantly opportunistic. If brand messaging doesn’t align with brand actions, many people — including your customers — will notice. Before rushing to show support, use the opportunity to recommit yourself to relevant brand values. And if possible, put your money where your messaging is with charitable donations.

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Don’t speak more than you listen

As marketers, we know successful campaigns occur when we listen to and understand our audience. When marketing campaigns go wrong on an ethical level, a failure to listen — or simply read the room — is almost always where things went wrong. Sadly, these marketing horror stories are all too familiar and have real-world consequences:

The German skincare brand Nivea had to retract its “White is Purity” social media campaign once it gained the attention of white supremacists. Ironically, this campaign was meant to target Middle Eastern customers — and utterly failed to do so.

A decade earlier, Italian car manufacturer Fiat delivered 50,000 personally-addressed love letters from an admirer — secretly a new car — to prospective customers. Before the revelatory follow-up message arrived, women were locking themselves in their homes, fearing a stalker.

Both of these campaigns were tone-deaf and thoughtless at best. Yet, in each case, they could have been avoided simply by understanding the impact such messaging has on customers.

Never hurry to deliver what you think is a witty message. Instead, make yourself aware of your audience’s expectations. Even better, support a diverse marketing team with a broad range of experiences who can address your blind spots well in advance.

Do be transparent with your audience

People aren’t perfect, and neither are brands. Marketers will occasionally produce tone-deaf messaging. Leaders fail to live up to brand values. As customers, however, we usually forgive missteps if companies behave transparently. More specifically, brands must be open about internal work processes, honest about controversial issues, and upfront about what they’re doing to resolve any problems.

Surprisingly, the NFL is just now proving itself to be a great example of transparency. A few short years ago, the football league utterly failed to address the Black Lives Matter movement during Colin Kapernick’s protest. In the wake of current protests, however, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted fault and acknowledged efforts to change the organization.

“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” Goodall said. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”

The NFL still has lots of work ahead of it, as transparency doesn’t erase a poor reputation overnight. Yet this promising first step can go a long way towards restoring audience trust, to say nothing of players and employees.

Ethical marketing is not some buzzword or catch-phrase — it’s good business. When applied effectively, it can highlight your brand values and establish trust with customers. If you hope to grow in 2020, prioritizing ethics, cultivating transparency, and listening to customers must be where your attention lies.

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