Ethical Marketing: Finding the Right Balance

Ethical Marketing: Finding the Right Balance

Ethical marketing practises are only becoming more important as the years go on. With buyers being more astute when it comes to products and services on offer from a range of providers. We discuss the issues that arise when deciding if marketing efforts are ethical or not, examples of different marketing strategies and how your business can avoid any costly mistakes!

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Wikipedia defines marketing ethics as ‘an area of applied ethics which deals with the moral principles behind the operation and regulation of marketing’. In essence, ‘ethical marketing’ is not a defined set of rules one can abide by. Being ethical is often down to individual moral judgement, but most commonly covers social responsibility, environmental awareness, avoiding fraudulent claims, stereotyping and targeting of vulnerable people.

Ethical marketing practices are more important than ever with buyers being more astute when it comes to products and services on offer from a range of providers. As a result of the “digital age”, and information being readily available to potential buyers through content marketing and social media promotion; ensuring that your message is impactful is highly important, but at what price? Can you identify the benefits that are going to make a buyer engage with you, and not a competitor? Or are you finding yourself needing to create benefits and messages that do not necessarily exist / relate to your offering? Hopefully, you’re falling into the former, not the latter, category!

In this article, we discuss the issues that arise when deciding if marketing efforts are ethical or not, examples of different marketing strategies and how your business can avoid any costly mistakes!

Marketing Laws

Around the world, governing bodies set a number of marketing and advertising regulations to help protect consumers and ensure that businesses are operating morally.

One example is the UK’s Marketing and advertising laws which state all advertising must be legal, decent, truthful and include accurate descriptions of products or services. In addition to this, no campaign must encourage illegal, unsafe or anti-social behaviour. These laws are enforced by ASA (The Advertising Standards Authority)

In America, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is an agency, independent of the US government, who enforce the antitrust law and advocate consumer protection. The FTC state that under law, claims in advertisements (and marketing content) must be truthful and based on evidence.

These bodies are quick to call-out and prosecute even the biggest companies breaking the law. For example, in March of 2016, the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen. The FTC claimed that VW had been deceiving its customers with an advertising campaign promoting ‘clean’ diesel vehicles with lower emissions.

One, more comical, example of a lawsuit was not from the FTC, however Red Bull were sued in 2014 for their slogan ‘Red Bull gives you wings’, since the product did not actually give it’s consumers wings. While the outcome of this case would have almost certainly been in Red Bull’s favour, the drinks company settled the suit to avoid costs.

Ethically Unethical: Marketing Ethics

While there are rules and regulations surrounding ethical marketing, these guidelines only cover false advertising, promotion of dangerous activity and protection of consumers from misinformation. However, the concept of being truly ethical is just that, a concept. There are elements of marketing that simply cannot be regulated, and the success of certain campaigns sits solely on the shoulders of public opinion. The grey line between ‘ok’ and ‘not ok’ can make a marketers job near-impossible, at times.

An example of where the line often gets blurred is in the implementation of modern-day business practises.

In recent times, consumers expect businesses to be green. Having to find the perfect balance of being environmentally sustainable and socially responsible- without producing an obvious marketing ploy- is often a big issue to tackle. With many brands setting out to give back to deprived communities, it begs the question: ‘Do these companies really care?’. If the balance between taking genuine responsibility, and wanting to generate publicity, is not right- public outroar can destroy a brands reputation.


At this point, we should probably mention ‘Greenwashing’.

Greenwashing is where businesses market a product or service as environmentally friendly, when in reality it is not. This also applies to previously established products/ services, that have been re-branded to be ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ when, realistically, they are not.

No matter which way you look at it, greenwashing a product is unethical. A consumer may make purchasing decisions based on environmental factors, which if proved untrue, could create huge backlash and result in fines.

Another ethical question presents itself when products are newly labelled as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ without changing the product. Whilst the product may have always been ‘green’, is actively claiming its environmental responsibility taking advantage of eco-conscious consumers? Could this also be implying that manufacturing methods/ ingredients / materials have been changed when it’s really only the sticker that’s been updated?

So why does this happen? As discussed, modern buyer expectations can be daunting and potentially just too long-winded to implement in a timely manner. Changes needed to a product or service for it to meet new buyer expectations doesn’t often come under the remit of marketing teams, however they are expected to prevent the backlash. Greenwashing is often a quick and easy option to save a brand falling to the knees of a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative.

Moral Dilemmas

Moral dilemmas often present themselves in the world of marketing. Certain campaigns which are not strictly breaking any laws or are outright making false claims, could be making implications that are untrue.

An example is the pharmaceutical industry. As you may already know, when patents for drugs expire, any licenced company/ factory can manufacture these drugs.

The real issue arrives in the marketing tactics used by big pharmaceutical brands. The companies offering products such as Sudafed, Lemsip, Nurofen and other branded OTC drugs run TV ad campaigns, online campaigns and often have imagery plastered around stores, especially in the UK. Whilst these companies don’t make any false claims, some believe the heavy promotion of branded drugs, and the benefits they provide, make the white label equivalent, that are sometimes even manufactured by the big brands, seem inferior to consumers. In reality, the active ingredients are the same.

Is this morally sound, and should brands have to be completely transparent about how their products compare to generic offerings? In addition, are these companies taking advantage of the vulnerable/ the ill, or just promoting their product that brings the best margins?

Another dilemma within the pharmaceutical industry is its product claims. Think about cough syrup, some brands claim that ‘cough syrup’ helps sooth coughs- when in reality it’s made to sooth throats (often giving the impression that a cough has calmed down and feels less painful). Is this morally wrong? Most people will see the positive effects on their cough by using the syrup, however the cough is actually still just as bad as before. Examples like this show how blurred the line really is, as if consumers report their throat feeling better is it a lie?

Consumer vs Business Buyers

We can’t write an insight into ethical marketing without explaining the difference in ethical views between consumers and business buyers.

With B2C marketing and advertising, you may think that brand loyalty plays a huge factor in the decision-making process of consumers (which it often does), but you may be surprised to hear that B2B companies often rely on brand loyalty even more due to the impact of a business buyer making the wrong buying choice.

Let’s explain:

If a Consumer is loyal to a smartphone brand, say Apple, and at the start of a new contract they buy a Samsung device, what are the consequences? The consumer is now stuck with a phone that they may not like for a year, a £500 mistake they will learn from.

Now, a Decision Maker in a large health insurance company chooses a shiny new company to produce their app, but the app is delivered broken. What are the consequences?

Their customers may not be able to make claims on their insurance, legal action may be taken, and the Decision Maker is likely fired. After that, the reputation of the company is damaged, and losses could occur if customers switch to a competitor.

The risks of changing providers for businesses buyers and getting it wrong are far greater than if a consumer makes the wrong choice, meaning that marketing and advertising for companies targeting business buyers absolutely needs to be honest and accurate and make no false claims surrounding cost savings, or features.

Protect Yourself: Marketing for Business

After reading the last 1,300 words, you may be sick of hearing ‘marketing ethics’. However, it is important to discuss how businesses may need to adapt their marketing efforts to fall in-line with ethical practises.

Luckily, it is hard to find examples of B2B businesses over-stepping the line when it comes to ethical marketing, this is mainly down to the routes to market used by B2B companies.

Marketing tools, such as Telemarketing and Email Marketing are effective as they allow you to communicate the benefits of your products and/or services directly to prospects.

If your target audience are business buyers rather than consumers, by making sure you know what your prospect’s pain points are and delivering knowledge and tangible benefits when marketing your services, not only will your messaging resonate with your target audience but will also allow your prospect B2B buyers to see you as a credible option.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how The Lead Gen Specialists’ range of B2B Lead Generation mechanisms can generate high quality leads for your sales team efficiently, and ethically, make an enquiry today!

Call 03332 400 054 or email

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