Marketing’s ethical boundaries: Do we know our strengths and limits?

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Is your business story good, or are you covering up something evil? The consequences can be significant for your marketing

The story behind the Cambridge Analytics/Facebook fiasco raises some challenging questions for anyone concerned with marketing and business development. CA failed the investigative journalism test: “If an undercover journalist goes digging around your business, would he or she find dirt?”

The idea is simple; if you are doing bad things and try to cover them up, you might get away with the crime — but you can also get caught.

Compare this to the story of organizations which have played it by the book. (Note I am speculating here — if there is a truly deep crime it might be covered up even more deeply, but it is hard to do.)

Ottawa architect Barry Hobin fits this description. Recently, he received the Integrity and Ethics Award from the General Contractors Association of Ottawa (GCAO). In his brief acceptance speech, he mentioned his faith-based values, including his appreciation of the value of tithing — essentially returning without question or coercion, 10 per cent of his wealth to the community and good causes. I’ve known about his values in this regard for years, and had the privilege of meeting with his staff who, not surprisingly, generally share the values.

He isn’t the cheapest architect in town by any means, but if you are thinking of purchasing architectural services, would you hesitate to put his practice on your “A” list?

I wish I could say my own business is so ethically pure. Some of our number one sales representative’s marketing techniques make me cringe. I don’t stop him, because we don’t really steal anyone’s money, in something of a fake-flattery game. (I reword some of his marketing pieces to take out lines that I think are excessively deceptive.)

However, I know there is a problem with sustainability: You can play the game so long and then people get tired of the con, even if it is a soft one. When we get together in May for a critical strategic planning meeting, I’ll speak directly to the problems and explore alternatives to produce better results.

Fortunately, our business hasn’t gone all the way like CA has managed to achieve marketing evil. And we don’t quite have the scale of Facebook, which may not be quite as guilty of evilness as of neglectfulness. Yet looking the other way, or failing to control evil people using your services or products, can be problematic, as well.

We need to remember the essence of marketing success is our ability to build client trust in our products, services and businesses. That is the essential objective of solid branding. Trickery and manipulation sometimes are highly effective, but as I deal with my own business failings, i increasingly realize that tithing probably pays off much more effectively in the long run. Let’s be good. Let’s not be evil.

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