Transforming marketing: three pillars to cultivating an ethical, impact-centred approach 


Ethical impact-centered marketing

What’s your level of trust when you think of marketing for social and environmental impact? Do you believe marketing is fit for the challenge?

If your answer is no and your trust is at an all-time low, rest assured, you’re not alone.

According to Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer, consumers believe that business is not doing enough to address societal problems like climate change (52%) and economic inequality (49%). Other studies confirm the findings, honing in on the lack of integrity and manipulative practices associated with marketing and advertising. For example, in a 2017 study by HubSpot, marketing ranked among one of the least trusted professions. Similarly, at the 2022 Global Marketer Week in Athens, a poll revealed that 73% of marketers agreed that the field is currently at odds with a sustainable future. These results align with the February 2022 edition of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) survey, which showed that only 24% of marketing leaders report that climate change falls within marketing’s responsibilities.

Based on this, associating marketing with the impact space might feel a little bit icky, right? And with good reason – the traditional marketing models have significantly contributed to the existing social inequalities and the distressing environmental degradation we see today.

Therefore, if we want marketing to be in harmony with a sustainable future and if we want to use it as a tool for change, it’s clearer than ever that the field requires a profound and fundamental transformation.

And I believe this transformation can be driven by three key regenerative principles:

1. Ensuring that our strategies serve a higher values-based goal at all times
2. Collaborating with and staying accountable to our organisations’ ecosystems and beyond
3. Prioritising transparency, empathy and value creation in every marketing action we take

Let’s dive into each of them.

1. Ensuring that our strategies serve a higher values-based goal at all times

Marketing strategy anchored in purpose

As a purpose-driven organisation, how can you ensure that marketing remains closely aligned with your core mission and consistently generates measurable impact?

This onion-shaped model above helps you connect marketing to purpose by following six simple, practical steps:

1. The higher goal

You start by clarifying the higher goal, which resides at the centre of the model, serving as a constant reminder of why the organisation exists in the first place. The higher goal is your North Star – the positive change you want to see in the world and to which your organisation dedicates itself. You can use these three questions to distill it and get to the essence of it.

• What is the new state of affairs we imagine?
• Why is it important to pursue a new state of affairs?
• What needs to change for it to become a reality?

2. Values

With the higher goal crystal clear, you then define your values, the moral compass that will guide your work at every step and keep the higher goal front and center at all times. To make them more specific, you can ask these two questions:

• What moral principles do we pledge to adhere to in our everyday work and big decisions?
• How will we make them truly actionable in the pursuit for the higher goal (so that they’re not just statements forgotten on a website page)?

3. Communities

The next step in the model is about mapping your organisation’s ecosystem: communities (directly and indirectly involved, formal and informal) and environmental considerations. By actively listening with an open heart and mind, you can foster collaboration with the different communities involved and together, design actions that are truly regenerative. For more insights on working with the communities in your ecosystem, check out pillar 2 ‘Collaborating with and staying accountable to our organisations’ ecosystems and beyond’.

4. Collective promise

Next, you can develop an organisational promise that represents and respects the ecosystem you’ve just mapped – a collective promise. This is the commitment to moving closer to the higher goal – co-created with your communities. It’s essentially a promise aimed at bringing everyone along, not just an isolated group of people, and it widens the lens from profit only to include people and the planet as well. In this way, we can move towards a more participatory approach in business, rather than the traditional one-way route.

During this exercise, it’s important to define what makes your promise unique in the pursuit of the higher goal. This will help you craft a compelling and credible story that demonstrates thoughtfulness and passion. A story that inspires people to take action, share with friends and amplify the change.

With the collective promise as an anchor, you can then create tailored messages for your different personas. You will communicate differently with a 20-year-old student compared to a 40-year-old policy maker. But they might both be part of your communities, so it’s important to address their needs, goals and concerns accordingly.

And because nature provides some of the best metaphors, let’s visualise how all these elements come together. Rooted in a higher values-based goal, we develop a collective promise through real conversations with the communities in our ecosystem. The collective promise will keep our business stable and accountable so that we can then design actions that truly lead to impact. 🌱

Collective promise

5. Organisational objectives

In order to define organisational objectives that truly drive impact, it’s crucial to regularly ask the following question:

How will we measure the gradual fulfilment of our collective promise?

In this model, the organisational objectives are basically proxies for the collective promise.

To enhance accountability and maintain focus, it is essential to establish SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound). And when evaluating the results, it is important to examine both the disaggregated and qualitative data in order to avoid overlooking any specific groups and gain a comprehensive understanding of the context you’re looking at.

For example, say you’re working on a social and emotional learning programme for youth, the organisational objectives can look something like this:

• In one year from now, at least 30% of schools in x region, including marginalised areas, have implemented the programme.
• More than 80% of youth consistently report that the programme is helping them in coping socially and emotionally, 3 months into the programme. Qualitative data is equally important here as certain aspects cannot be translated into numbers. This can also provide insights into how the remaining 20% of youth will not be excluded, making conversations a crucial component. Emphasising this approach to objective setting is crucial because, all too often, the individuals at the core of an organisation are overlooked in the relentless pursuit of funding.
• And when it comes to funding, the objective can be: the funding we need to make this happen is $500,000 in the next year with an increase of 20% YoY.

6. Marketing objectives

With the organisational objectives clear and anchored in the collective promise, you can now set your marketing objectives to support the organisational goals and ultimately the higher goal. This process involves reverse engineering, where you work backward from the desired outcome to determine the necessary steps and strategies for your marketing efforts. Building on the youth programme example:

• If one of the organisational objectives is for at least 30% of schools in x region to have implemented the programme, a marketing objective that can support this can be: at least 50 schools in this region have organised one awareness event with youth, parents, educators, psychologists and policy makers (bringing the different communities together).
• For an organisational objective of 80%+ of youth consistently reporting that the programme is helping them, a marketing objective can be: ensuring a certain level of engagement (80%) with the programme materials.
• If the funding we need is $500,000 and the average funding amount is around $25,000, a marketing objective is to help attract around 20 funders.

Although reality often involves a greater level of complexity, I have simplified the example to demonstrate the reverse-engineering exercise. Here’s how the full six-step model would come together for the youth programme example mentioned above.

Youth programme example

2. Collaborating with and staying accountable to our organisations’ ecosystems and beyond

This pillar is closely connected to the Communities section within the first pillar. However, it deserves distinct attention due to the importance of working with the communities within the organisation’s ecosystem and understanding the environmental factors at play. In doing so, we can cultivate genuine and mutually beneficial relationships, proactively address environmental risks, and actively contribute to regenerative practices. Questions that may help are:

• What are our communities’ contexts, goals, challenges, decision-making processes, communication preferences, expectations, objections etc?
• What’s their sentiment about the status quo?
• What’s their investment in the higher goal?
• What are the mutually beneficial ways of working together towards the higher goal?
• Are there any potential ethical or environmental risks, and if so, what proactive measures will we take to address them effectively?
• How can we realise regeneration opportunities (restoring, healing, rebuilding) in collaboration with the communities?
• How can we foster partnerships and amplify synergies for impact?
• How will we stay accountable to the aspects above and consistently measure progress (building an accountability framework is key here)?

3. Prioritising transparency, empathy and value creation in every marketing action we take

Three seemingly uncomplicated yet crucial components – when done well – will enhance the community journey with your brand and amplify the success of your business: Community wellbeing, Regenerative product and Helpful content. If undertaken responsibly and with a regenerative mindset, they have the potential to revolutionise the marketing landscape. Consider these guiding questions:

Community wellbeing

• Do we understand and respect all the communities in our ecosystem?
• Do we provide value in our interactions – do we help our communities thrive?
• Are our promises grounded in reality and being kept along the way?
• Do we talk too much about ourselves, falling into ‘the hero trap’?
• Are mistakes openly shared, owned up to and used to learn from them?
• Are we handling our communities’ data in a transparent, responsible, secure and permission-based way?

Regenerative product

• Are our products developed with our users’ needs and goals in mind – does it deliver on the promise?
• Do we promote sustainable, responsible and conscious choices?
• Do we communicate honestly and clearly on everything that goes into our products?
• Is there something about the product/service that is not ideal and is hard to change at the moment – are we transparent about that?
• If an external person were to join us behind the scenes of product development, would we be comfortable with that?
• Are we implementing the feedback that we’re receiving?
• Is there any part of our product that we could improve but are lenient about because our good mission compensates for it?

Helpful content

• Does our content address our communities’ needs and goals?
• Are the higher goal and collective promise clear throughout our content, without us falling into ‘the hero trap’?
• Are we explicit and transparent about our sustainability and impact statements?
• Are our ‘freebies’ really free? Data is not free.
• Do we use unnecessarily pressing calls to action (CTAs)?
• Do we talk openly about the realities of our sector?
• Are our promotional messages in line with the actual content of our offering?

To further explore these three elements together with a series of examples, make sure to check out this post: Nurturing your community journey: an ethical and budget-friendly framework for impact-first brands.

To wrap up, I believe that marketing can serve as a catalyst for positive change. However, I’m certain this cannot happen without a significant and comprehensive transformation.

Centring our organisations in a higher values-based goal, recognising the interconnectedness of the various actors in our ecosystems, seeking input from diverse perspectives, building genuine connections and accountability systems, creating products and services that promote well-being and the overall betterment of society – these actions are just some of the ways in which we can drive this transformation.

By integrating these principles into our strategies and actions – not as a one-time adjustment but as an ongoing commitment – we can start creating a marketing paradigm that aligns with our collective values and aspirations.

Published on 14 June 2023 by Laura Tufis. Laura also presented this content at Acumen Academy’s End of Year Summit (Beyond Business as Usual) in December 2022.