Ethical marketing (part I): driven by values, rooted in a higher goal
Traditionally, the main role of marketing has been to promote and sell products and services with the sole goal of maximising a company’s profit and the wealth of its shareholders. This approach to business has led to widespread disregard for external impacts, playing a key role in stoking social inequalities and being a major contributor to alarming environmental degradation. And while some companies might have overhauled their practices to mitigate negative impacts and contribute to positive change, too many have held firm to the status quo and employed greenwashing or bluewashing strategies instead.
Add to that the misuse of personal data in (microtargeted) advertising and political campaigns, it is no wonder that the word ‘marketing’ often conjures up associations with manipulative practices and plain distrust. Purpose-driven organisations that are genuinely dedicated to making a social or environmental impact often feel they enter tricky territory when developing their marketing strategies. And rightfully so – the skepticism has legitimate foundations.
At the same time, we know that marketing is key in expanding the reach of a cause, bringing people on board and generating crucial action.
So how do we navigate a territory marked by all these issues and do so ethically and responsibly?
Widening the scope of business goals to include people and the planet is, of course, a key step in that direction. Sustainable, purpose-driven and people-planet-profit marketing are all familiar concepts that have gained increasing attention and commitment in the past decade.
But as old practices are being challenged and new models emerge, it is important to also stay critical about the nature of the building blocks used in the mix. Constant reflection, evaluation and openness to change are a must as we turn the tide toward a more ethical discipline that drives sustainable results for all.
Real change lies in the details of daily actions. This is why, in this blog series, I’d like to discuss how we, purpose-driven marketers, and fellow changemakers can keep improving our practices so that the marketing we engage in is invariably anchored in ethical standards and in line with the impact we’re looking to create.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be zooming in on various aspects that I find important when striving to ensure ethical marketing practices in socially-minded organisations. And I’d be happy to hear your views, comments and suggestions.
By no means do I claim to have all the answers surrounding the topic. Nor do I intend to claim the moral high ground. This series is a set of reflections based on my experience in impact-driven organisations as well as an invitation to an ongoing conversation that keeps us open, candid and alert.
Marketing is a tool, and like any other tool, it can be used for a variety of goals across a large spectrum. It’s up to us to create an environment in which the good side of the spectrum shines bright. And what better place to start than at the core of our organisations?
Marketing driven by values, rooted in a higher goal
The importance of having clear organisational values driven by the impact we want to make in the world cannot be emphasised enough. And although the values exercise is not an easy task in itself, the real challenge lies in integrating those values 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. Ultimately, clear values keep us focused when things get hard.
As Acumen’s founder and CEO, Jacqueline Novogratz, writes in her book, ‘Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World’: “Statements of values can guide actions and reinforce bonds of community – if they are lived. […] To unite any group, let alone the world, in common purpose requires role models and business models that demonstrate values made manifest.”
Marketing creates a bridge between the internal world of our organisations and the external world of the people we’re looking to serve. And it is our duty to constantly assess how we’re tuning into these two worlds so that we can ensure moral ways of tackling the tensions and disparities that arise in the process.
In the Cause Canvas – my proposed marketing strategy framework for purpose-driven organisations committed to inclusive growth – the Higher Goal lies at the centre of the framework as a constant reminder that it’s not only the first step in defining a social impact strategy but also a driving force influencing the decisions around it. The Higher Goal refers to your organisation’s dream for a more just and sustainable world and to distil it, you’re encouraged to ask questions like:
• What is the new state of affairs you imagine?
• Why is it important to pursue a new state of affairs?
• What do you think needs to change?
• What are the values that will guide your work?
As marketers, we tap into and influence multiple aspects of an organisation, from the resources we use, the stories we tell and the way we show our impact, to the people and organisations we attract as partners, ambassadors, donors, investors, customers or members.
When we commit to aligning these aspects with a set of values rooted in a higher goal, we allow for other equally important objectives to co-exist with the pursuit for funding. For example, a set of values focused on respectful relationships and rooted in a higher goal of human flourishing will help reconcile the financial needs of the organisation with the needs and aspirations of the users/communities at the centre of the cause as well as those of the employees. Such an approach leads to:
• Developing products and services that don’t only sell but really fulfill the needs of the audiences they are aimed at. As Acumen’s CMO said in an event, “the product is the marketing”, marketing shouldn’t be an afterthought.
• Attracting partners, donors or investors that truly support the cause and not only the potential gain in profit or reputation.
• Crafting stories and calls to action that attract funding and respect the human dignity of the people involved.
• Pursuing projects not only for the numbers to be shown to donors or investors but also for the good that they put out into the world.
• Hiring marketing teams that are truly dedicated to the cause and have an empathetic ear for all the stakeholders involved: customers, local communities, partners, donors, investors etc.
• Employing marketing practices and systems with permission and data privacy at the core.
In a nutshell, when marketing decisions get blurry, the core values and focus on the higher goal will help us lift the fog.
Stay tuned for my next post in the ethical marketing blog series and leave your comments below.
Published on 17 September 2021 by Laura Tufis. Updated on 15 June 2022.