Ethical marketing (part III): the transparency trifecta
Back in 2015, Seth Godin published this powerful post (The strawberry conundrum):
“Every grocer has to decide: when packing a quart of strawberries, should your people put the best ones on top?
If you do, you’ll sell more and disappoint people when they get to the moldy ones on the bottom.
Or, perhaps you could put the moldy ones on top, and pleasantly surprise the few that buy.
Or, you could rationalize that everyone expects a little hype, and they’ll get over it.
A local grocer turned the problem upside down: He got rid of the boxes and just put out a pile of strawberries. People picked their own. He charged more, sold more and made everyone happier.
Hype might not be your best option.”
It’s clearer than ever that transparency, and implicitly transparent marketing, is not only a moral imperative; it’s key for building relationships that last. A 2018 survey by Accenture Strategy showed that 66% of consumers think transparency is one of the most attractive qualities in a brand. Furthermore, in a study by Label Insight, 94% of the respondents said it was important to them that the brands and manufacturers they buy from are transparent about what’s in their food and how it is made.
And we cannot talk about transparency without bringing trust into the conversation.
According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, 81% of customers need to trust a brand in order to buy from them. In the same study, 67% of people agreed that a good reputation may get them to try a product, but unless they come to trust the company behind the product, they will soon stop buying it.
What does this mean for marketing in the social impact space? Let’s have a look at three key dimensions: product, impact and customer data.
Product transparency: ‘What’s in the box is on the box’
We’ve all experienced or at least heard of a product or service that caught the eye marketing-wise, yet fell short experience-wise. And we all know this trick never works in the long run. At the core of marketing that contributes to sustainable change and long-term success, there is:
1. A product that consistently (over)delivers on its promise
2. A communication approach that is transparent, authentic and empowering
Whenever I think of product transparency, I always think of Yoni’s (the chemical-free menstrual products company) statement: ‘What’s in the box is on the box’. I find that this tagline embodies the definition of any transparent product or service: showing and continuing to be ready to show what goes into creating that product or service.
The long-lasting commitment to such an approach is heavily dependent on clear values being championed at every level of the organisation. As I wrote in a previous blog post, when it comes to values, “the real challenge is not in defining [them] but in integrating them into the decisions we make down the road – in making sure that they’re not only a statement plastered on a website or a document forgotten in a folder but a set of principles that inform and guide our everyday actions, the difficult decisions we face, the partnerships we forge, the recruitment choices we make and the culture we create.”
That’s why, to ensure constant transparency, we need accountability indicators and regular reality checks. Because just like a car needs regular maintenance to keep running, transparency needs systematic checks to stay on track. Consider some of the questions below and for a great example of an ethical marketing policy, check out JBMedia.
1. Are we communicating honestly and clearly on everything that goes into our products? No jargon, no inflated data, no exaggerated benefits. Companies like Yoni, Patagonia, Beauty Kitchen, Mud Jeans are examples of companies that give comprehensive and unambiguous information on what goes into their products as well as on their environmental and social impact. They also encourage customers to leave reviews directly on their websites.
2. If an external person were to join us behind the scenes of product development, would we feel comfortable with that? As Hitesh Kenjale, co-founder of DesiHangover, is quoted in this ethical marketing post by Acumen Academy, “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.”
3. Is there something about the product or service that is not ideal and is hard to change at the moment? Are we acknowledging it and explaining how we’re addressing the issue? For example, check out one of Tony’s Chocolonely posts: ‘Facing up to an inconvenient truth: we’re part of the sugar problem’.
4. Is there any part of our product that we could improve but are lenient about because our good mission compensates for it? There might be a small group of customers who will accept that for a while but amplifying impact often requires a wider reach than that. And for that, a great customer experience is key.
5. Do we talk openly about the realities of our sector? Are we acknowledging the limitations and progress that still needs to be made?
6. Do marketing, sales and product development collaborate effectively and ensure an open flow of information? Do marketing and sales fully understand the product, its benefits and its limitations – and do they communicate them accordingly? Does product development regularly receive and take on board the customer feedback collected by marketing and sales?
7. Are our promotional messages in line with the actual content of our offering? For example, is our coming webinar really providing value on the topic we mentioned or is it actually 50%+ sales?
Impact transparency: linking proof to a higher values-based goal
There is no question that impact data and stories are the lifeblood of any marketing, sales, fundraising and business development initiative in the social impact space. Showcasing an organisation’s results is key to growing its community, attracting more funding and ultimately generating more impact. To grow the cause and drive more change, we need to prove the effectiveness of our work.
But this is where things sometimes get off course. In the pursuit for funding and under the argument that ‘it’s for a good cause’, many organisations start compromising on transparency and engaging in impact washing practices like:
• Exaggerated benefits and inflated results
• Data and stories taken out of context
• Overly doctored testimonials
• Covering up failures through splashy stories
Rejecting such practices is obviously integral to impact transparency and ethical marketing. And then there’s more. There’s the elevated commitment to transparency: a proactive approach in which transparency gets embedded in the organisation’s DNA and drives its every action. What does this mean for marketing?
First, a commitment to accountability – which is about making realistic promises, walking the talk, and when failing to do so, owning up to it.
For example, when using the Cause Canvas marketing framework to define your organisation’s Collective Promise, you are prompted to ask:
• What do you, together with your Community Partners, commit to doing in order to change things and move closer to the Higher Goal? The Community Partners are the communities at the core of your cause – the people who are impacted by the current state of affairs.
• How will you measure the fulfillment of your Collective Promise?
And when talking about Proof of impact, two of the guiding questions are:
• What are the results – and how are they linked to the Higher Goal? That is, what are the stories of change and the data behind them and how are they contributing to the new state of affairs you are pursuing with your cause?
• What are the lessons learned – and how will you use them in driving more impact?
By following these guiding questions, the process of proving your impact becomes anchored in the bigger purpose – which is far more important for long-term success than a one-off enhancement to your company image or the addition of an impact statement to a promotional campaign.
For such an endeavour to truly manifest throughout your operations, end-to-end data transparency is key, from determining what data is needed to measure impact to collecting it responsibly, and sharing it openly, consistently and in a digestible way.
A social enterprise that uses this approach is Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees. Ecosia publishes monthly financial reports that ‘show exactly how much money they made from searches, and what percentage of their revenue went towards trees’. Another example is Fairphone’s mapping of their supply chain and showing the path that different phone components take from mines and factories all the way to the consumer.
Second, a commitment to authenticity – which doesn’t only show the good numbers, emotional stories and big partner names, but is equally explicit about sharing lessons learned, owning one’s failures, and addressing issues as they come up.
Everyone knows mistakes are part of the work but how many organisations are brave enough to talk about them, integrate them into the journey towards the higher goal and show how they are going to set things right – now and in the future?
What’s more, the social impact sector is well known for its complexities and difficulties, so it’s not even credible that it’s all sunshine and rainbows along the way. Big, pompous statements will get questioned and generate a ripple effect of skepticism which on the long term can break the brand.
Customer data: permission-based personalisation
When it comes to marketing and transparency, the elephant in the room is, of course, the use of data.
According to Statista, the volume of data created and available to companies has increased by more than 5,000% since 2010 and will continue to grow exponentially in the coming years.
And with technology offering ever more granular targeting opportunities and marketing trends like social shopping, livestream shopping and augmented reality on the rise (and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic), the topic of data was never in bigger need for ethical considerations than today.
SmarterHQ’s survey on privacy and personalisation shows that 86% of consumers are concerned about their data privacy, 79% believe companies know too much about them and 63% say they would stop purchasing products and services from companies that take “creepy” marketing too far. Yet, 72% say they now only engage with marketing messages tailored to their interests and 90% are willing to share behavioural data for a cheaper and easier brand experience.
These stats emphasise once again the importance of a transparent, responsible, secure and respectful approach to data and personalisation.
Fortunately, regulators are addressing this issue with data privacy laws like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). And soon, Google will join Safari and Firefox in blocking third-party cookies, which will have a major impact on the world of digital advertising.
Despite these efforts, data transparency remains an issue. According to the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), 47% of privacy pros said their organizations were fully compliant or very compliant with the GDPR in 2020. This number coupled with the big fines given for breaching the GDPR in 2021 shows that a lot of work still needs to be done.
On this note, here are a few reminders:
• Ask for explicit consent to store and use the data (ie. including the option to decline)
• Be explicit about the data that is collected – and why
• Explain how the data will be used – and act accordingly
• Don’t collect more data than what’s needed to provide value to customers
• Only provide the content the subscriber has signed up for – no list switching without consent
• Be clear about how the data can be accessed and removed
• Make unsubscribe links easy to find and use
• Dispose of the data when not necessary anymore
• Make it easy for readers/viewers to distinguish between advertorials or native ads and pure editorial content
• In influencer marketing, make sure it’s clear when a product or service is being advertised by the influencer.
A marketing approach rooted in transparency, accountability and authenticity is key to fostering a more sustainable business ecosystem. Staying ready to listen, showing a deep understanding of our sectors’ complexities and constantly improving the way we do things will help us build lasting relationships and move closer to real impact.
What other actions do you take to ensure transparency in your marketing? Leave your comments below.
Published on 4 February 2022 by Laura Tufis. Updated on 27 September 2022.
Note: We have no affiliation with any of the companies mentioned above. The information is based on their websites and social media communication and aimed at illustrating some of the principles addressed in the blog post.