What is responsible marketing?

17 November 2009

Marketing man

What are the factors that make for ethical and responsible marketing? Today saw the launch of a document I've written for the Institute of Business Ethics on 'Marketing Responsibly'. It generated an interesting discussion, and I thought I would share some of the key points here.

The thing of which I became acutely aware in researching the report was the gulf that exists within companies between the marketing departments and the compliance or CSR teams. Different language. Different objectives. Mutual incomprehension.

The key challnege for any company in embedding social responsibility is to generate the discussion between the two. The key concept that they have in common is trust.

CSR is about building trust between the company and its stakeholders. Responsible marketing is about building trust between the company and its customers.

Some of the areas are straightforward. So, for instance, it would be a good idea if you didn't lie to your customers,

The responsible marketer is not one that never pushes the boundaries.

Sounds obvious, and in the highly regulated areas around advertising, it really is - for all that there are plenty of transgressors each year, trying to get away with something.

But in the age of social media, there are now new grey areas. You can pretend to be an amateur film-maker on Youtube, or you can pretend to be an unbiased customer, or you can pay a bunch of people to pretend to be excited customers queueing up for the launch of a new product.

Are these things wrong? Yes, if they are implemented with the deliberate attempt to deceive customers.

Other ideas involve no hard and fast right and wrongs, but need marketers to be able to navigate moral dilemmas. If you are a global cosmetics company, do you sell skin-whitening creams in India by telling women they will get better husbands if they have lighter skin? And how does that make customers in your home market feel?

Hint - this is not a theoretical question.

And take the instance of Google in China. Did they achieve the best way to achieve their mission given the political realities? Or did they sell out their principles? It has already been much discussed. There is not yet a consensus answer.

And for marketers, that is part of the challenge. They operate on the keen edge between company and customer. When attitudes shift, they can get caught out. When they take risks, they can be highly effective, or they can be utterly disastrous.

Are you allowed to market directly to children any more? The answer ten years ago, and the answer today are very different.

The responsible marketer is not one that never pushes the boundaries. Shock advertising can be responsible. Sexy advertising can be responsible. Boring advertising cannot be what we tell marketers they have to settle for.

And the strategic marketer will know that there are now new factors, such as climate change, that need to influence the concept, design and delivery of products. It's not just about the promotion.

The world is changing quickly around marketers. They need a reliable compass to navigate their way through it. Embedding values, searching for some of the pitfalls, and looking for the opportunities - that's what the smart ones are doing today.

Most are not. There's something much more interesting about preaching to the non-converted.