Building ethical marketing messages isn’t always easy. It can be difficult to strip away the unethical tactics we’ve been using for years. You may not be able to discern an ethical marketing message from an unethical one, or you may feel like there’s no way that marketing can be ethical in the first place.

Ethical marketing isn’t an idealized fantasy. It’s within your reach as a marketer or business owner to apply a code of ethics to your marketing activities. In this post, I’ll show you how to build ethical marketing messages that foster trust and loyalty with your ideal customers.

What Are Ethical Marketing Messages?

Ethical marketing messages communicate with people in an honest and respectful fashion. They prioritize the wellbeing of the person receiving the message (your audience) over all other objectives. Like most marketing messages, the purpose of an ethical marketing message is to promote goods or services—but not at the expense of your audience.

Now, successful ethical marketing messages also fulfill the primary role of marketing: to attract qualified “leads,” which your sales team can then convert into customers. (Thanks to Chris Davis for this very succinct definition!) Although I’m reluctant to call people “leads” because it dehumanizes the people we are supposed to be helping, it is a shortcut that everyone understands so we’ll go with it (for now).

These are the broad strokes that define successful ethical marketing messages:

  • they prioritize the wellbeing of your audience
  • they attract qualified leads for your products or services

To fill in the details, we’ll look at the common characteristics of ethical marketing messages and how you, as a marketer or business owner, can build them. First, let’s take a step back and examine the role of marketing in more detail.

The Role of Marketing

The role of marketing is often confused with sales. In small businesses, the two are usually handled by the same person. As marketers and business owners, we must remember, though, that these two functions are distinct from each other.

The role of marketing is to attract the right people (qualified “leads” or “prospects”) and begin a conversation. It’s the beginning of a relationship as much as it’s a carefully crafted filtering process. Effective marketing speaks directly to your ideal clients and acknowledges their wants, needs, and anxieties. It’s also hyper-specific, allowing people to self-select in or out of what you’re offering.

Can Marketing Messages Be Ethical?

Contrary to what many people believe, marketing is not inherently unethical. A few months ago, I answered the question, “Can Marketing Be Ethical?” with a big, enthusiastic, “Yes!” I believe that marketing can be a force for good because it has the ability to truly help people. It does this by connecting them to the products and services that they want or need.

Marketers help people by connecting them to the products and services that they want or need.

What Defines an Ethical Marketing Message?

So what defines an ethical marketing message? What makes it any different from an unethical message? Ethical marketing messages are defined not just by their contents but also by the way they are communicated. Ethical marketing messages share a few common traits. They are:

  • Honest
  • Transparent
  • In-service to your audience

Honest

Honesty is the most important characteristic of an ethical marketing message. If your message is darkly clever or misleading, then it isn’t honest and it isn’t ethical. (When I say “darkly clever,” I’m not referring to campaigns such as the controversial PSA about texting and driving in Canada. Although, it is fascinating…) Darkly clever messages are manipulative and dishonest.

Honest messages, on the other hand, accurately convey the benefits of what you’re selling. They don’t present your products and services as the silver bullet to finding happiness and fulfillment. They don’t lie about your competitor’s solutions. Honest marketing messages present pertinent information about your offerings without deception or malicious omission.

Transparent

Transparency is an extension of honesty and a hot topic in public discourse today. When your marketing message is transparent, it does not hide or obscure information that your audience should consider before making a purchasing decision. Instead, ethical marketing messages lay all the germane cards on the table.

I use “germane” to qualify “all the cards” because I don’t believe that transparency means airing your dirty laundry or inundating your audience with random facts. Germane information in this context is anything that someone should know before they make a purchasing decision.

In-Service to Your Audience

What does it mean for a message to be “in-service” to your audience? It means that the message prioritizes the wellbeing of your audience above all else. Bernadette Jiwa puts it best in her two rules for good marketing, which I’ve quoted before:

The best marketing does two things:
1. It empowers people to make decisions now that they won’t regret later.
2. It helps people to do the things they want to do.

– Bernadette Jiwa, “The Two Rules of Good Marketing”

These two rules are a great shorthand for ethical marketing messages. You can use them as a litmus test to determine whether a message is ethical without having to do a deep dive analysis.

Now that we’ve covered the role of marketing and what an ethical marketing message looks like, let’s move on to the how-to portion of this post.

Building Ethical Marketing Messages

Building ethical marketing messages starts with knowing who your audience is. This is the foundation for all effective communication but especially for ethical marketing messages. Taking the time to get to know your audience is one way of acknowledging their humanity rather than stripping it away. When we see our audience as individuals, we treat them more like people and less like numbers.

Connect with Empathy

Empathetic marketing is more likely to connect on a deeper level with the people whom you’re trying to reach. When we use empathy to build marketing messages, we get to the heart of our customers’ motivations. We understand not just what they need but also why they need it.

I have a client, Robyn Sayles of Launching Your Success, who refers to what she calls “the paradox of audience engagement.” This paradox states that the more tailored a message is to one specific person, the more likely it is that the message will connect deeply with a large audience of people. Conversely, the more we try to water down our messages to reach many people at once, the less likely it is to connect with those people on a deep, individual level.

I have found this paradox to be true in my own experiences as a professional marketer and business owner. The more specific your marketing messages are, the more they will connect with your ideal audience. The best way to make your messages specific is to practice empathy.

Be Honest About Alternatives

As we saw demonstrated on the court of the US Open Tennis Championships, being honest about your opponent is a winning move. It’s not only ethical; it’s also confidence-inspiring. It takes self-assurance to acknowledge when your competition does a good job, and it earns you the respect of your audience.

“What Osaka did after the match has been called an example of sportsmanship, but that doesn’t do it justice. […]It was an act of compassion. It was also unusual, and a little awkward, and brave, in its way.”

– Louisa Thomas, “U.S. Open 2019: The Power of Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff Together, in Victory and Defeat”

In most marketing messages, being honest about alternatives simply means don’t disparage your competition—unless you’re just being honest. Although in practice, you probably shouldn’t speak ill of your competition at all, even when what you’re saying is true. Negative characterizations can come across as spiteful or bitter. They also shift the focus from your products and services to those of your competitor.

Be Transparent

Making your marketing messages transparent means not omitting information that your potential customer needs to know. Empathy comes back into play here, as I mentioned earlier. If you were on the receiving end of the message, what information would you want to have? What would you need to know before making a purchase or commitment?

You don’t need to include every last detail about your product, service, or company in every marketing message. Instead, only include the information that is germane to what you’re asking your audience to do (purchase, follow, advocate, etc.).

Here’s an activity that can help you better understand what information should be included in each marketing message you create:

  1. Define your customer journey.
  2. In between each step in the journey, add the most common questions customers ask at that particular moment in their purchasing journey.
  3. Based on the questions in Step 2, identify the most important information your customer needs to know at each step in the journey.
  4. Create messages for each step that answer the questions from Step 2 and incorporate the information you identified in Step 3.

The resulting sequence of messages should read like a conversation that leads to a logical call to action.

Prioritize Your Audience

Prioritizing your audience is the most important part of building ethical marketing messages. It’s the foundation of your intentions. Once you’ve crafted your marketing messages, review them with a critical eye. Ask yourself: who do these marketing messages prioritize?

This prioritization is not easy. Most good marketers fall into the trap of trying to benefit multiple stakeholders without prioritizing any one of them. We see an example of this in the AMA Statement of Ethics. When we do this, we allow ourselves to shift priorities at will, which means that we sometimes put our business needs before the wellbeing of our customers.

Work hard to avoid this trap. Focus on doing right by your customers, building their trust and loyalty, and it will reward your business in the end. That’s the irony of prioritizing the wellbeing of your audience. In most cases, it actually ensures the success of your business.

The Long and Short of It

Building ethical marketing messages requires empathy, honesty, transparency, and prioritizing your audience above business objectives. It’s not easy, but it’s the type of activity that will foster a relationship of trust and loyalty with your ideal customers. As the foundation for a sustainable business, trust and loyalty are critical to ensuring longterm marketing (and business) success.


I would love to hear your thoughts on building ethical marketing messages. Do you find it difficult to craft ethical marketing messages? Are you unsure how to get other stakeholders on board with this type of activity? Comment below to share your opinions or experiences.

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2 Comments

    1. Thank you for the feedback, David! I’m glad that the activity was useful and also very happy to hear that you are prioritizing marketing ethics.

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