“Ads make promises.
Promises bring people hope.
Don’t f*** with a person’s hope.”
—Seth Godin, VeryGoodCopy
Ethical marketing can be underrated in the B2B industry.
And that’s not good, because B2B is the lifeblood of our economy.
Unethical business practices (in marketing or otherwise) make our economy less efficient. That has ripple effects for everyone.
Take for example inflating the efficacy of an electrical efficiency system. This redirects investments from more effective technologies that offer greater global benefits. We’d all love lower electrical bills, right?
That’s why we’ll all be better off with ethical B2B marketing practices.
So, how can we make that happen within our organizations?
What does ethical B2B marketing look like?
“Good products can be sold by honest advertising.” —David Ogilvy, The Father of Advertising
Unethical marketers practice deception, manipulation and puffery that promotes materialism, wastefulness and debt.
Ethical marketers promote products and services that solve real problems.
They provide customers with complete and honest information. They clearly show when the product will meet customers’ needs. And they’re open about how the business functions throughout the entire buying process.
The pillars of ethical marketing: honesty, clarity and transparency
— Honesty means everything you say is completely true.
— Clarity means the information is concise, easy to understand and not at all misleading.
— Transparency means providing any relevant information that could impact a buyer’s decision.
Every marketing strategy should serve your target customers’ best interests.
Say you distribute a news roundup billed as “Everything you need to know in the industry to succeed.”
You can’t leave out bad industry news that hurts your bottom line. Nobody makes solid choices on incomplete information. Customers will lose trust in your newsletter after it leads them to make unwise business decisions.
If you only want to share the good news in your industry, be honest about it. Call your newsletter something like, “The sector’s best news stories”.
Winning from mistakes: The subcontractor case study
I believe fundamental honesty is the keystone of business. —Harvey S. Firestone, founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company
There’s no such thing as a perfect company, and everyone knows that. Yet many companies spurn the imperfect.
Highlighting how you overcome adversity allows you to turn mistakes into wins.
And on the flip side, not being honest, clear and transparent can be a major risk if you’re called out in public.
Let’s look at an in-house example.
A subcontractor wanted G76 to write a case study about one of their big construction projects.
Senior Writer Rose Hansen interviewed the project’s general contractor. He said our client delivered a great final product. But there were problems with the workmanship in the early days.
To their credit, the client corrected every mistake. The project finished ahead of schedule despite early delays.
Such a tight turnaround seemed like an ideal focus for the piece. Stories about a business owning its mistakes are novel enough to attract attention.
And that’s what content marketing is all about.
Rose wrote a case study about an honest and forthright contractor that takes feedback well and works hard until the job is done right.
“It’s a beautiful story to share on social media, because we see all these ‘We’re so great at everything’ kind of stories all the time,” said G76 Thinker & Senior Strategist Mary Keough. “It was really nice to see this real plot find a happy resolution, and they wanted to cut out all of the plot.”
From the account manager’s perspective, admitting those faults would be a stain on the resume.
The client asked Rose to omit all their mistakes from the narrative and stick to the good stuff. It left the case study feeling hollow. Their most impressive feats were made to fix those mistakes.
On top of that, the general contractor and other people within the project knew that wasn’t the full story. If they got called out, Rose was afraid it could tarnish the client’s reputation.
“We were using the general contractor’s testimony to twist the story to support a version of events that did not happen, taking his quotes out of context,” Rose said.
She worked to find a solution, but the client wouldn’t budge. Neither did Rose. It was for their own good.
G76 eventually gave the client the version we supported. They could do with it what they would. But in the end, they saw it our way.
The story went live, showing the team’s incredible efforts to correct honest mistakes.
Ethical content distribution
It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently. —Warren Buffet, American business magnate
Digital marketing offers many ways to accrue and leverage people’s contact information. You could host a webinar, attend a conference or offer gated content. But no matter how you get it, only use someone’s contact information for the reasons they provided it.
If they haven’t opted in for the information, don’t send it to them. You’ll only waste their time and make them think less of your brand. And they could pass that perception on to their friends and peers. And next thing you know, your company has an awful reputation.
“First, you’re invading the individual’s control over their own buying process. Then you’ve got a bad reputation on channels that you can’t control,” Mary said. “Come at this with a sense of empathy first. There are better ways to get people to sign up for your newsletter than buying lists or adding them without their permission.”
Annoying marketing methods could have immediate consequences at major B2B companies.
If your email address gets directed to the spam folder at a company like Honeywell, you may never get out.
“All of a sudden, they say, ‘I can’t talk to anybody at Honeywell anymore because my emails are getting bounced,’” Mary said. “And it’s like, ‘Yeah. Because you blasted them with emails and now their server has you on a block list.’”
The G76 process for ethical considerations
Never deceive others in business or in life. In 1995 I was deceived by four companies that are now closed. A company cannot go far by deceit. —Jack Ma, Chinese business magnate
There’s a lot to think about when addressing ethical concerns. That’s why we follow a list of considerations such as the impact on all stakeholders, legal considerations and, ultimately, if we should participate in the project.
Gorilla 76 scrutinizes ethical issues with every marketing strategy. Clients should do the same.
We often find an approach that meets business needs and ethical policies. If it violates our obligation to ethical marketing, we’ll walk away from the project.
Let’s walk through another example together.
The tobacco case study
In another ethical conundrum, one of our clients wanted to highlight a promotion that was intended to skirt laws against tobacco coupons. Rose didn’t feel right about the strategy.
Marketing around harmful products like tobacco can be tricky enough, but Rose had other concerns. The client could gain a reputation for dubious business practices. They wanted to foster their image as a trustworthy company, and this didn’t fit the bill.
“The client wanted to illustrate how they exploited a loophole in federal regulations to deliver business results for a tobacco company,” Rose said. “They already had so little market space, we were afraid if they highlighted this tobacco project, it could turn off other prospective clients. And tobacco is not a growing market either.”
Rose brought her concerns to the client. It took a lot of back and forth. But they decided to develop the case study on a similar project for a different company.
Considering all the angles
Here are the guiding questions that G76 uses to interrogate ethical issues:
- Are there deceptive and/or otherwise untrue elements of this marketing strategy, including untold truths?
- Does anything about this marketing strategy/product/service conflict with Gorilla 76’s code of ethics?
- Who are the immediate stakeholders of this product, service and/or marketing strategy?
- Who are the more remote stakeholders and how much may they be impacted?
- How vulnerable are the impacted populations to harm?
- Ex: Impoverished communities are more likely to experience long-lasting negative consequences as compared to affluent communities.
- How vital are tobacco products to the overall function to the wider economy?
- Ex: Steel, oil and electricity are essential components of a functioning economy, whereas it is much more difficult to argue that we need cigarettes to function as a society.
- What is this industry’s overall effect on and responsibilities to the wider economy?
- Ex: Does the tobacco industry have an overall positive or negative impact on the function of our society and economy?
- Are tobacco products harmful?
- Are tobacco products subject to government regulation?
- Is there potential for the government to impose regulations if problematic issues related to this product/service/strategy go unchecked?
- How may this product/service/strategy affect stakeholders and the wider economy in unintended ways?
- Ex: The more cigarette smokers in a population, the more state-funded healthcare expenses are accrued for medical coverage.
- What was the intention of this marketing strategy/product/service?
- What are the most likely outcomes to this strategy/product/service?
- What are the most severe potential negative outcomes of this strategy/product/service?
- What are the established cultural perceptions and norms regarding this kind of product/service/strategy among the stakeholders and wider society?
- How will this strategy/product/service likely affect the public image, stakeholder perceptions and brand positioning of our agency and the client?
- Should we participate in this project?
All these questions aren’t applicable in every case but take the time to consider every angle.
Take the truth to your market
“There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” —Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize economist
We all benefit when B2B marketers foster an honest and transparent buying process. But it’s easier said than done. Especially for small businesses with limited experience in content distribution.
Sometimes, you need a guide to help navigate all the ethical problems that can befall B2B brands with the even purest intentions.
Reach out to us at Gorilla 76 when you need help. We’ve worked with dozens of B2B companies and know the common pitfalls.
Let’s put your content marketing into perspective, strategically and ethically.