Notes on responsible marketing

If we see that today’s marketing practices are, eh, questionable when it comes to ethics… what then should be the alternative?

A few notes from a first exploration.

In his publication on Ethics and Social Responsibility in Marketing, Thomas F. Gilbertson PhD gives a description of what he sees as the purpose of marketing:

The goals of the marketing department are to target an audience, appeal to that audience, and get the audience to purchase that particular product or service.

OK, so—is that ethical? Influencing people to buy your stuff?

First follow-up question is then: what is ethical? Agreement on a few fundamental understandings that help here:

So when we say that the goal of marketing is to get other people to purchase a particular product or service (or generalized: to get other people to act in a way that it primarily benefits you), that feels like it may conflict with this concept of power symmetry.

Unless… the purchasing delivers an equal benefit to the purchaser as it does to the company AND it does not harm the broader health of our society.

What would that look like, then?

I would say that it is OK to encourage people to purchase your product as long as (1) you are sure that a needs truly exists, and (2) your product is the most fitting and responsible way of fulfilling that need, compared to other solutions in or outside the market.

This means that:

  1. You should be able to find out about people’s true needs (beyond an ‘openness to buy’ and into an understanding of their goals and values)
  2. You should be willing to walk away from selling opportunities when better alternatives exist to your solution, or even to suggest those solutions over your product, even though you won’t make any direct money out of it. Much like your local bakery which suggests the next baker in town when they’re out of cupcakes.
  3. Your product should be the more fitting AND the more responsible one (let’s talk about responsible product development later).

If you’re able to do this, your company will be earn the trust of the people who you’ve been engaging with. You will build up relationships based on value alignment— the strongest type of relationship that exists. And those relationships will help you to better listen to the needs of the other, which enables your company to answer them better. This positive upward spiral ultimately benefits all.

When we use these insights to rephrase the original statement of Thomas F. Gilbertson PhD, it could look something like this:

The goals of the marketing department are to build trusted relationships with society, to use those relationships to listen to the true needs of human beings, and to suggest the most responsible solution/behavior to help them succeed in that need.

That sounds pretty good to me.