The ethics of marketing

Jean-Luc Ambrosi

Jean-Luc Ambrosi is an award winning marketer and recognised expert in branding and customer relationship management. He is the author of the new book, Branding to Differ, a strategic and practical guide on how to build and manage a successful brand.

Marketing as an art and as a quasi-science has reached a new level of maturity and efficacy, driven in a large part by the increased ability to gather, manipulate and analyse data to study consumer behaviours.

Good marketing enables organisations to communicate their messages efficiently and compellingly. While as a whole, marketing supports the efficient functioning of our economic activity, we know all too well that it can also be used to communicate ideas, concepts and products that do not contribute to the well-being of consumers.

Marketing’s increased technology sophistication has enabled the development of communication models generating tangible impacts on their selected audiences. While the effectiveness of these techniques can sometimes be questioned on a case-by-case basis, there is no uncertainty about their overall effectiveness.

I have no doubt that with the right budget and the right tools at my disposal as a marketer, I can convince portions of the population about the benefits of many ideas, brands or products no matter how good they are. But with this ‘ability to influence’ comes responsibility.

Having at our disposal the means to influence audiences in one direction or another comes with the responsibility of ensuring the direction we are promoting does not conflict with our intimate ethical standards. I use the word ‘intimate’ purposefully, because this is not about standards dictated by the internal communication department, a code of ethics, or the advertising agency. I also use the words ‘does not conflict with our ethical standards’ as opposed to ‘agrees with our ethical standards’ as this is about everyday reality and not a philosophical debate.

We do not always agree with everything we must do in our daily work, and this we must live with. The question is rather whether we are fundamentally conflicted with an aspect of our work from an ethical point of view. This is about what you, what I, truly believe in. It is too easy to hide behind corporate standards; they are not ours, they're someone else’s, as good and well-intended as they may be.

While you may argue that personal ethical standards may be biased (and they are), they are the only ones by which you and I can be held accountable upon. Why? Because standards need to have true and deep personal meanings. Just like the marketing communications that we generate, they must resonate within both rationally and emotionally. They are the ones we are personally responsible for.

A few years ago, while I was marketing unsecured lending products, our head of risk came with an interesting suggestion to boost profitability. The idea was to offer increased credit limits with lower approval requirements for a very specific group of customers who were not normally targeted due to their higher than average credit risk. The only issue was that by doing so, the percentage of default rates from these customers would increase as well.

From a profitability point of view, increased revenue would more than offset the credit default losses, so it was a 'good' idea. The head of risk was a really nice guy, caring, engaging and by all accounts ethical. What he was doing was simply his job, finding ways to treat risk to increase profitability. What followed however, was a deep and heated discussion about the negative effects this would have on a number of customers who would end up defaulting on their credit, unable to service the additional debt burden.

The idea was 'good' for profitability and 'bad' for customers at the fringe of financial equilibrium. It wasn't illegal, it wasn't breaking any corporate guidelines, it wasn’t even an issue with the legal department, it was just... unethical. Once we started to appreciate the impact of this potential action, the 'good' idea became a 'bad' idea even for its originator. It was going against our personal values, the only ones that really, and I mean really, hold us accountable and empower us to draw the line. Yes, empower.

Of course the reality is not always that clear cut and we more often than not find ourselves swimming in murky waters. It is difficult to fully understand the potential impact of some of our ideas and actions. One particular line of conduct may be acceptable in isolation but what about the aggregate effect? This is compounded by the fact that we frequently need to deal with contradictory objectives added to a fair amount of pressure to perform.

But pausing from time to time, to look around and take a close look at what we do and how we impact others may not be such a bad idea.

More on customer engagement

  • 13 customer experience trends to watch
  • [[artnid:529205|Customer service and loyalty: Jean-Luc Ambrosi's Branding to differ
  • [[artnid:521938|How to create customer-centricity across your organisation

Tags: customer insights

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

State of the CMO 2019

CMO’s State of the CMO is an annual industry research initiative aimed at understanding how ...

More whitepapers

Blog Posts

Non-linear transformation: The internal struggle

Let’s face it, transformation is messy. Every business is different, with a set of specific challenges based on a mixture of external (the market, competitors, regulation) and internal factors (technology, people and process investments over time).

Neil Kelly

Partner, transformation, Wunderman Thompson

7 ways to champion a human centred design culture

Human Centred Design (HCD) has come a long way in the last decade with many forward-thinking organisations now asking for HCD teams on their projects. It’s increasingly seen as essential to unlocking innovation, driving superior customer experiences and reducing delivery risk.

Shane Burford

Head of research and design, RXP Group

Building a human-curated brand

If the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) sector and their measured worth are the final argument for the successful 21st Century model, then they are beyond reproach. Fine-tuning masses of algorithms to reduce human touchpoints and deliver wild returns to investors—all with workforces infinitesimally small compared to the giants of the 20th Century—has been proven out.

Will Smith

Co-founder and head of new markets, The Plum Guide

Hi Jennifer,Fascinating read about design-led companies!If you would like to learn more, our Design Thinking and Innovation programme mig...

Andrea Foster

How to spot a ‘design-led’ versus ‘design-fed’ company

Read more

ABC web-site not easy to use/navigate. Even getting this far in sign-on to ABC My Space was problematic - it was asking for my password,...

Vee.

How the ABC used an online community to help build a movement

Read more

Thank you for your feedback, Astha! Always appreciated.

Vanessa Skye Mitchell

5 things marketers should know about data privacy in 2020

Read more

Hey Vanessa, thanks for providing us the things marketers should know about data privacy. This was really an informative post.

astha sharma

5 things marketers should know about data privacy in 2020

Read more

Well, that's good to know that. Any other news you want to share here? I can't wait to see more.

Phil Godfrey

Queensland appoints first chief customer and digital officer

Read more

Latest Podcast

More podcasts

Sign in