What is Ethical Marketing?

The function within business firms most often charged with ethical abuse is Marketing” – Murphy and Laczniak, 1981 (p. 251)


Nowadays, ethical marketing is mentioned everywhere. It quickly became a popular trend. From brands who use production processes respectful of the environment, to brands that distribute profits to philanthropic endeavors, such companies understood one thing: in a crowded market place, customers are more inclined to choose a brand that creates a difference. But what really is ethical marketing, or at least, how do we define ethical marketing at Enhance — the creative and conscious MarCom agency? Let’s figure it out.


The traditional definition

Ethical marketing can be considered as a marketing “niche” where marketing actions aim to increase socially responsible solutions that will benefit society as a whole in the short- and long-term. One accurate definition of ethical marketing could be the following: “Ethical marketing is a process through which companies generate customer interest in products/services, build strong customer interest/relationships, and create value for all stakeholders by incorporating social and environmental considerations in products and promotions. All aspects of marketing are considered, from sales techniques to business communication and business development.” (1)

Got some examples? Among the brands that are currently leading the ethical marketing game, here are some examples of brands who thrive by applying ethical marketing actions at the core of their business: TOMS, the footwear business renowned for its outreach projects and corporate giving initiatives; EVERLANE, the fashion business specialized in radical transparency in their production costs and manufacturing processes; PATAGONIA, the adventure-wear brand that “builds the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” (2).

Those brands have multiple ethical orientations such as: participating in philanthropic initiatives, enhancing transparent communication, implementing healthy manufacture processes, engaging in societal or environmental initiatives, and encouraging businesses to have a “positive impact on society and the environment according to legally defined goals.”


Ethical marketing at Enhance

“Successful change is almost always specific, not general. You don’t have a chance to make mass change, but you can make focused change.” – Seth Godin, February 28, 2013.

At Enhance, we develop ethical MarCom implementations for brands. To do so, we defined ethical marketing by considering the traditional definition (see above) but also by following Robert F. Lauterborn’s 4 Cs classification in marketing — the customer-oriented version of the traditional 4 Ps marketing model. A variant where marketers take customers’ point of view and ask themselves: “What does the customer need to hear?”

Without considering philosophical or moral stands in the area of marketing or in business, ethical marketing at Enhance is essentially developing the mindset of putting customers and audiences first. This means having the discipline of creating marketing actions and strategies that bring true added-value for customers and audiences while keeping sustainable business goals in mind. As a result, Enhance revisits each facet of the traditional marketing mix and crafts an ethical version of each of them.

Whether it concerns internal/external corporate communication or digital communications, Enhance provides ethical and conscious guidelines to do MarCom in a way that delivers business results while respecting consumers and audiences’ time and attention. For example, in the social media field, one way of creating value for audiences while considering business needs for the company would be going beyond the simple promotion of the brand by creating social media posts that deliver accurate information while enhancing valuable actions for customers.


How to develop conscious MarCom guidelines?

If marketing is a form of communication that embodies selling intentions and communication is the act of providing information to external sources, ethical communication can be defined as the act of transmitting accurate information to the world. Therefore, ethical marketing is a way to provide conscious incentives to sell products or services to consumers.

Since marketing materials will create an incentive for audiences to purchase a product, the field of advertising needs to be investigated to understand how ethical ads are defined. For example, Nwachukwu et al. (1997, cited by C. Gauzente & A. Ranchhod, 2001) developed 3 variables to address such component: individual autonomy (ability of the individual to recognize the manipulative power of advertising), consumer sovereignty (level of knowledge and sophistication of the target audience, e.g. the marketing of infant formula in less developed countries illustrates low consumer sovereignty), and harmfulness of products (the nature of the product e.g. detrimental products to people’s health, or use of harmful visual imagery). As a result, developing innovative conscious actions in MarCom starts by selecting scientific-based variables to extract tailor-made criteria and create new guidelines for MarCom actions and strategies.


Q & A


Why choosing ethical marketing as the main underline guideline for your MarCom tools and strategies for brands?

E: We choose ethical marketing because we want to create meaningful work for people who care. We see marketing as a human creation. As a result, we treat it as a form of art that creates incredible value for specific individuals who will get it and value it. We want to help brands and people behind them that seek to see a difference in the world and who want to be an active part in that positive change.


Where do your ethical MarCom guidelines come from?

E: We curate added-value contents in marketing, communication, and all related topics of influence – which include psychology, culture, business, and innovation. Therefore, we are able to gather pieces of information coming from multiple sources (science, international brands, world-renowned influencers) that we connect together so we can create innovative guidelines in the MarCom area. Therefore, our guidelines and recommendations are based on scientists discoveries, media ethnological observations, and world-renowned pieces of literature.


Can you give an example of ethical practice in the MarCom field?

E: For each area of the marketing mix, the main idea is to extract the value proposition for customers within the selected area. For example, a conscious social media strategy will consist of creating value for audiences while considering business requirements for the company. Such value creation can be done with the following actions in digital content marketing: creating social media posts that matter, that deliver information that is accurate, and that enhance valuable actions from customers.


Should I go as far as TOMS to be an ethical brand?

E: Asking for every brand to become ethical simply because it’s the “right thing” wouldn’t be fair, nor realistic. Every brand as the right to choose its own path. However, every brand can make little steps toward ethical implementations within their business, for example by engaging with conscious MarCom actions that respect customer and audiences. Such implementations are easier than creating an entire ethical business model. While this shouldn’t, in any case, mislead customers into thinking they are dealing with a full ethical brand, they can have reassurance in knowing that they are interacting with a brand that is respectful of their time and attention by delivering added-value MarCom contents.


Isn’t ethical MarCom idealistic?

E: In the short term/tunnel vision of things, yes. In the long term/broader scale of things, no. As many frameworks and models, it all depends on the angle you choose to see it. For brands who are in the lookout of short term results and quick successes, ethical marketing is not the right marketing model. At Enhance, we want to help brands and companies that have not only a business model but a true vision. In that sense, we encourage brands to develop honest long term relationships with customers and audiences because doing so will build brand loyalty – one of the major components that lead customers to follow a business through year-long iterations as the business grows. For those reasons, ethical marketing is extremely relevant as it intends to foster healthy relationships between businesses and customers.


Is it worth it then?

E: 100% yes. The most common mistakes businesses do is to put growth and sales first, instead of building healthy foundations. Such tactics may prove to be successful at first, but over time they always backfire. Companies who weren’t authentic in delivering their product or services – or who did it but in unethical manners – faced at one point or another a major backlash.

While PR firms can easily brush such incidents off, employees or customers are often profoundly impacted by unethical actions in business. Indeed, we rarely hear about the real consequences of unhealthy businesses. Rare are rockstar employees able to grab the megaphone to speak to the media and to voice companies’ misleadings. Mainstream media is also guilty of rationalizing such incidents by labeling them as necessary entrepreneurial failures. But let’s remind ourselves: there’s a major difference between making honest mistakes while building a business and intentionally creating shortcuts in business development and/or management in order to grow a company.

Fast-fashion is a concrete example of unethical strategies in business, as such business model disrupted the fashion production chain to the detriment of workers and the environment in general. Negative practices can also spread within companies’ departments. In marketing, for example, such unethical practices took over and led to misleading advertising, unsolicited advertising, or emotional exploitation. Not to mention the current bad practices in digital marketing regarding social media, data privacy, etc.

As for everything valuable and long-lasting in life, creating healthy foundations costs time and money. Nevertheless, businesses should invest in doing that first. They should create real visions, sustainable business models, and long term plans with delayed growth and financial gratifications. Only then, businesses will be able to bring true added-value to society, create products and services that are needed for customers, and finally create jobs that can offer sustainable living for employees.

A difficult path, yet an incredibly rewarding one.