Can brands behave more ethically?

The world of ethical business is a hornets’ nest of acronyms and jargon. ESG; Corporate Purpose; Triple Bottom Lines; Brand Purpose; greenwashing. Where acronyms and jargon lurk, the heavy hand of the management consultant is often found. And, sure enough, the big four have made it their business to codify the ways of ethical business, find the perils of not attending to it and develop pitfalls along the road to success that only they can help you avoid.

Some of these issues sit in the corporate world, and their impact is way above the marketing function’s pay grade. The debate has raged for some time as to whether ‘Purpose’ is a marketing issue or a corporate issue, and if it’s a marketing responsibility then this raises the additional problem of Brand Purpose. Different from Corporate Purpose? A side branch to it? Or the marketing expression of it?

It is an industry in its own right, with its own language and ecosystems and a hydra-like ability to grow new problems – as soon as the head is chopped off, two more grow to replace it. In other words, it has been designed to confuse anybody who touches it and has been successfully doing so for some years now.

So – when marketing people and departments analyse whether the brand can behave in an ethical manner, the starting point must always be to approach the subject from the point of view of their customers. Work out how all this matters to the customers, and then establish how the brand should behave and communicate to satisfy their needs. Let’s try to clear away some of the confusion and establish what marketing people can, and should, do to act ethically.

First – a definition of ethical behaviour is needed. Tricky, but here goes. Ethics is about making choices. Every decision you make has consequences, not just for you but for other people. And if your decisions are being made for a company or corporation those consequences will be correspondingly greater. So, your choice is to behave selfishly – with regard only to the beneficial consequences for yourself or your own company – or behave ethically, exercising your personal and corporate conscience, and considering with equal importance the consequences for others. It is not usually as simple as making sure you always seek to ‘do good’. It is almost inevitable that there will be a downside for somebody, somewhere, to every decision you take. Your job as an ethical decision-maker is to make sure you minimise that downside and aim for the smallest negative impact, for the largest number of people, that you can achieve.

Have that in your head as the framework and decision-making should be simpler.

The Ethics Centre defines six questions that you should ask yourself to guide you in making ethically sound decisions. You can read the full article here   along with some really informed writing and advice on the whole subject of ethics. But here is a precis, with my thanks to The Ethics Centre.

  • Would I be happy for this decision to be headline news tomorrow? Imagine your decision is public knowledge and consider how it would be received.
  • Is there an ethical non-negotiable at play? For instance – are you undermining somebody’s dignity?
  • Will my action make the world a better place? Remember that there are always consequences to actions – and if making the world a better place is asking too much, consider the ‘least-worst’ scenario instead.
  • What would happen if everybody did this? An ethical framework would suggest that the decision that is right for one person should also be right for all others in the same position. Don’t be tempted to take the easy way out by making exceptions for yourself
  • What will this do to my character or the character of my organisation? If the answer is that it would make you into a cheat or a liar, think again.
  • Is this consistent with my values and principles? Assuming that you and your company actually have some – pay attention to them at all times and make sure you talk and walk accordingly.

Let’s see how this thinking impacts some of the basic principles of marketing.


here is some straightforward stuff to do with the environment that will touch on your manufacturing and packaging decisions, and the way your employees behave and impact on customers and the environment. There are slightly less obvious areas to consider like how customers interact with the product, and how they dispose of it once it’s worn out or broken. All of this is often regulated and legislated for and should really be the baseline to be in business these days, more seldom a point of competitive differentiation.


Pricing decisions sit outside the remit of many marketing departments. But pricing has an ethical impact just as surely as a product. Aggressively low pricing puts pressure on suppliers, maybe to behave abusively towards their workers or exploit the local environment. Applying the maximum premium possible has impacts on consumers that can result in unnecessary hardship and suffering, particularly if you operate in the provision of essential services. Shareholder return is not necessarily the only consideration here.


Distribution has its own ethical impact and decisions need to be made responsibly. You probably don’t own the shop or website or outlet where your product is bought, but the presence of your brand within it will impact how your consumers use it. So you need to consider the ethics and behaviour of your distribution chain too – ethical behaviour goes beyond the parts of your business that you own and into your supplier and partner network too.


This is the one where most marketers have the biggest impact, and it’s the one that makes the most noise in the marketing world. Let’s look at this one in a bit more detail.

  • At its most basic, all advertising should be decent, legal and honest. That has been the case for years and it’s as true today as it always has been. It isn’t just an ethical requirement; it is also a legal one enforced by industry bodies.
  • Rule 1 in our decision makers list above is about how you would feel if your decision were headline news tomorrow. Bear in mind that advertising actually is just as visible as headline news, so your decisions and behaviours are right out there to be seen. So – make sure your start point is ‘don’t be ashamed’, and is not ‘don’t get caught’. There is a world of difference
  • Be respectful of your audience, your customers and the world. Making fun of people, even if it’s inadvertent, is not good ethics in advertising.
  • Poor taste is also bad ethics. So are pointlessness and plagiarism.
  • Misuse of personal data Is always bad ethics. And if you ever doubt the wisdom of this, consider the example of massive press and consumer backlash against organisations that are found guilty of it.
  • Similarly, you have an ethical responsibility for the environmental impact of the media you use for your advertising. You might not own the media, but the way you use it is up to you. You need to consider the carbon impact of your media plan. It’s not safe to assume that electronic media are inevitably less environmentally impactful than print – digital servers are becoming one of the world’s great polluting industries. Off-setting might be a good conscience salver, but better still is to reduce the impact by avoiding waste and targeting better.
  • It is most definitely not just about what you say as a brand or company that matters – corporate and brand actions are equally important. There is a need and a place for good, cohesive corporate citizenship, behaviour that underpins promotion.
  • Greenwashing is an ethical crime in its own right. Hiding unethical business behaviour behind untruthful or exaggerated environmental claims never stands up to scrutiny, so it best not to go there – it’s another one that falls under the heading of ‘hoping never to be found out’ and the internet provides all the tools that will find you.

I appreciate that some of this advice will be regarded as easier said than done. Every commercial organisation will always have to balance ethical behaviour against the need to make a profit. But, there are strong reasons for marketing people and organisations to behave more ethically. There is consumer pressure for one thing – without question, this is on the rise, however much cynicism you or I might have about the (usually unattributed) random research percentage and monetary figures that are thrown about at conferences. Not acting ethically, or not being seen to do so, are good ways to lose customers and shrink your business.

And if that is not enough, don’t forget to consider your own conscience. You, too, have to live with the consequences of the marketing decisions that you make.

Is your marketing strategy supporting the business goals and objectives? Find out more about our approach to ethical marketing here.