Ethical Marketing: Why it’s Important, and How to Use It

Digital Marketing

Ethics are rules and principles that govern a person’s conduct. These can vary between individuals, but common examples include responsibility, integrity, and fairness. Like individuals, companies also abide by their own set of business ethics. They serve as a compass to establish standards for what’s morally (sometimes legally) right or wrong.

10 Guidelines to Fair Trade
Ethics in Trade | Credit: World Fair Trade Organization

You can incorporate ethics in every process of running a business:

  • Promotion: How products are displayed in-store or online
  • E.g. Ensuring price labels are accurate
  • Advertising: How your staff are selling it to potential customers
  • E.g. Relaying precise information; not promoting false deals
  • Company Values: What you stand for, what you believe in and how you conduct yourself professionally
  • Aligning partners with these are crucial as well
  • Handling Manpower:
  • Fair treatment of all staff involved (in both your own company AND partner companies)
  • Charitable Actions:
  • Promises/pledges to donate to others in need, supported by customers’ purchases
  • Positive Impact on Society:
  • A focus on social or environmental concerns through your work

What is Ethical Marketing?

Ethical marketing is a philosophy that reflects how companies commit to transparency, honesty and responsibility in their marketing efforts. Another facet of ethical marketing includes how a company positions its products to focus on social or environmental responsibility. The former is related to using ethics on promotion and advertising tactics, while the latter depends on the organization’s innate promise to do good and contribute to meaningful causes.

Ethical marketing covers a brand’s philosophy and how it conducts itself when it comes to sales and promotions. Given its depth, we will narrow our focus to equipping digital marketers on how to weave in ethics in their day-to-day work.

In this article, we will outline what being ethical looks like in digital marketing practices.

Ethical Marketing Makes a Difference in Singapore

Singaporean consumers are becoming more conscious about how their purchases can impact the world. An Eco Business’ 2016 Collaborative Brands report found that over half (54%) of interviewed respondents have purchased a product or service from a brand because they supported a social cause. Within the same group, 81% also believe brands should play a role in improving society. Customers want to know where their money goes. More importantly, they want to do good with each purchase.

As we usher in a new age in the digital and information revolution, we find ourselves better equipped for uncomfortable, yet necessary dialogues on social issues that were previously swept under the rug. We have become more attuned to the details in content around us, as both global and local citizens. Consumers are more sensitive to nuances that touch on sensitive topics such as race and inequality. The eruption of Black Lives Matter protests throughout the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder has shed new light on the topic. Household brands that have previously dominated the market are now receiving heat for their racist branding, leaving them with no choice but to rebrand.

Bringing this back home to Singapore, having our rich social tapestry rooted in diverse multiculturalism and multiracialism underlines just how crucial it is to uphold ethics in marketing. Yes, steering clear from unethical practices will prevent unnecessary damage to your branding. On the flipside, successfully incorporating ethics in all aspects of your marketing efforts can strengthen your brand’s positioning. When you’re perceived as a socially conscious and forward-thinking brand, consumers are more inclined to be associated with your products.

Ethical Marketing is a Grey Area
It's not always so clear cut what is ethical and what is not when it comes to Marketing

Ethical Marketing is a Grey Area

Ethics does not, however, fall under one fixed definition. Unless it’s governed by the law, what is universally “right” and “wrong” isn’t always clear. Besides referencing company values, whether your marketing efforts are considered ethical also depends on cultural and societal norms.

Case Study: Darlie Toothpaste Controversy

To illustrate this, let’s look deeper into the case of Darlie, one of the toothpaste brands owned by Colgate. Up till 1989, it was known as Darkie, its logo inspired by white minstrel performer, Al Jolson, who became popular for his blackface performances. After stirring up great controversy over brand name and image in the United States, it went through a one-letter name rebranding and took on a more “racially ambiguous” face on the packaging.

The transition of design and name of Darkie to Darlie
A similar but more racially ambiguous design | Credit:

Yet, it is still referred to as “Hei Ren Ya Gao” in Mandarin Chinese, which directly translates to “Black person toothpaste”.

While highly offensive for western countries, consumers from Asia have been more or less indifferent. In fact, it remains one of the most popular toothpaste brands in many Asian countries, Singapore included. According to Euromonitor International, they own 17 percent of the market share in China, 21 percent in Singapore, 28 percent in Malaysia and nearly half in Taiwan.

Marketing messages and tactics in Asia usually promote fair skin as ideal standards of beauty, while darker skin tones are portrayed as less desirable. This notion of “dark being inferior” is a form of discrimination known as colourism, based largely on ignorance and the legacy left behind by western imperialism in Asia.

A possible explanation to why Darlie is still thriving in Asia is because its branding is not targeted at the major race groups in Asian countries. The discourse on colourism in Asia is still slow, and has yet to gain the traction it deserves. Advertisements based on insensitive racial stereotypes are still a common occurrence throughout Asia. Thus, through Darlie, we can see how certain products or branding methods may come across as more or less offensive, depending on the country and culture you are in.

While being unethical may be frowned upon, it isn't always illegal either. When pressured to meet quotas, salespeople might resort to any means available to make a sale. This could include baiting customers with tempting offers, or promoting deals improperly. These consumers then proceed with securing the deal, only to find out the details have been changed after it’s too late.

These might help to boost revenue, but only temporarily. In the long-term, it damages the relationships you have with your customers. By anchoring your marketing efforts on ethics, you can build a sense of trust with your consumers. When done right, it’s possible to convert them into champions and advocates for your brand.

Considering Ethics in Marketing for Your Organization

Here are some factors to help you with ethical marketing strategies:

  1. Do reflect prices transparently in your content. Always be honest! Customers will be assured that you are reliable and trustworthy.
  2. Do ensure fairness to customers and competitors alike. Getting business is a priority, but it should be at no one’s expense. Equality towards competitors also tells consumers you are confident in your brand and products, as you can stand out through unique means, rather than underhand ones.
  3. Do protect customer data and privacy. If they have entrusted you with their personal data for a specific reason, do not abuse it. Handle it discreetly; confidential information in the wrong hands would spell disaster.
  4. Do treat everyone with respect and kindness. Being nice improves their experience with your brand, which could build towards brand loyalty!
  5. Do the necessary research behind content appropriate for our multiracial and multicultural society. Being open and considerate goes a long way!
  6. Do provide accurate and detailed information through your advertisements.  
  7. Do consider gender, religion, and possible ways in which content might exclude or offend specific consumer groups. Having this in mind is crucial, so you understand what to avoid.
  8. Do not hard sell or pressure anyone! Provide them with various options for their purchases, and be patient with them. These can be policies on refunding products, suggesting alternatives, or involving other sales staff to assist them.
  9. Do not make use of content that's insensitive. Consider how potential customers might react when they see your content, and refrain from things people would question or doubt.
  10. Do not mislead customers, or display only a portion of details. Providing incomplete or improper information to them will backfire when they realize it.

In addition, it is important to adhere to the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act and the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice.

Always assess your content from the viewpoint of a customer. After all, they are the ones who determine your success.

Being honest, kind and committed to your customers heightens trust in your brand. The pleasant encounter improves your relationship with your customers, builds brand loyalty and keeps them coming for more.

The legal documents above are really long, so here's the TLDR:

Put yourself in the shoes of others when marketing
Ethical Marketing is grounded on empathy

Put yourself in the shoes of others.

In the grand scheme of things, by being ethical in marketing, you actually stand to gain much more.

This is the second article in our 2-part series on ethical marketing. If you’re interested, here are some examples where marketing harms your brand when you end up overlooking ethics

Gordon Chen
Managed Writer