How important is ethical marketing to the modern consumer? A consumer behavior study by Aflac indicates that roughly 75% of surveyed customers reported that they would boycott a brand that they perceived as making irresponsible business actions—in other words, not being socially conscious or responsible.
The high value at which the modern consumer holds social responsibility is one of the driving forces behind ethical marketing.
What is ethical marketing?
Ethical marketing describes how companies market their products or services not solely based on their value to the customer but on their value to social and environmental causes. It seeks to build lasting customer-brand relationships based on shared values and goals.
You can also think of ethical marketing as applying ethics to the process of marketing. Companies can achieve this by carefully analyzing marketing issues through the lens of moral judgment. That includes:
- creating marketing campaigns and content that is transparent and trustworthy,
- supporting ethically valuable causes, and
- consistently making morally sound business decisions regarding production, treatment of employees, sustainability, and beyond.
Ultimately, ethical marketing has never been more important to consumers than it is now. Companies—whether big or small—that harness the power of social responsibility are able to not only appeal to customers but to contribute to society in meaningful ways.
To understand the importance of ethical marketing, it’s helpful to analyze companies that are doing it effectively.
1. Dr. Bronner’s
Founded by Emanuel Bronner, Dr. Bronner’s is the company behind the top-selling organic liquid soap in the United States. The brand’s hallmarks include recognizable visual branding and powerful ethics.
The cornerstone of Dr. Bronner’s social responsibility lies in its “Cosmic Principles.”
According to Dr. Bronner’s, the following principles outline its most important relationships and guide the company in its decision-making.
These simple principles, like “Do right by customers,” cover all of the major touchstones of ethical marketing. The Cosmic Principles are a consumable and actionable guide that sets this company apart.
Dr. Bronner’s uses its Cosmic Principles to support a wide range of causes, such as drug policy reform, income equality, sustainable, regenerative organic agriculture, and animal advocacy.
In this way, the brand wisely roots its identity in social activism. By cultivating shared passions with its customers, Dr. Bronner’s has effectively built trust with a wide consumer base—and it’s maintained it through consistent transparency and visible social action. Beyond this, consumers love Dr. Bronner’s comprehensive selection of organic soaps and home products.
Everlane, founded by Michael Preysman in 2010, is a clothing company that has made ethical manufacturing its cornerstone. Everlane is as well known for its socially responsible practices as it is for its popular vintage denim styles.
Centered around the premise, “We believe we can all make a difference,” Everlane outlines its principles on a bold About page.
Pay special attention to its copy:
- “Exceptional quality.” Everlane is committed to creating products that transcend fast fashion and trends.
- “Ethical factories.” This clothing company goes into great detail about its production process and promises a personal relationship with its factories—it audits its factories for fair wages, hours, safety, and environmental impact.
- “Radical transparency.” Everlane’s boldest ethical marketing maneuver is its choice to reveal the cost behind every product. It provides information on everything from the cost of materials to labor to transportation.
Everlane’s ethical marketing is effective because of the definitive proof it provides. Not only does it commit to social responsibility, it shows its work! The brand’s policy of “radical transparency” is indeed radical—and bold. It details exactly what labor and materials cost and shows the customer how their product is priced. This creates an incomparable sense of trust with customers.
3. Warby Parker
Warby Parker is a glasses manufacturer born out of frustration with the high prices of prescription glasses—largely because of a virtual monopoly in the eyewear industry. Beyond its commitment to providing eyewear at fair prices, Warby Parker practices ethical marketing with its innovative “Buy-A-Pair, Give-A-Pair” program.
The program operates on a simple concept: that everyone “has a right to see.” It delivers on this concept by donating a pair of glasses to a person in need with every purchase. Warby Parker has also established training resources—for giving basic eye exams and selling affordable eyeglasses—in its outreach communities.
In its decade of existence, this wide-reaching initiative has reached people in over 50 countries so far. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Warby Parker has shifted its “Give-A-Pair” program to focus on providing personal protective equipment to healthcare workers and communities in need.
In the age of COVID and well before, Warby Parker’s ethical marketing has been successful because it includes the customer in the narrative. It positions the customer as an agent of social responsibility and change. Warby Parker has been effective in enacting tangible social benefits to needy communities, and it is able to provide confirmation of this benefit in emotionally appealing content and marketing.
TOMS, a shoe company famous for its “One for One” ethical marketing, has donated over 100 million pairs of shoes since its inception in 2006. From the beginning, founder Blake Mycoskie committed to donating shoes to children in need. Beyond creating a product with a very recognizable style, he created an extraordinarily recognizable marketing model.
While TOMS’ donation of shoes to millions of children is inspiring, its evolution beyond that model is even more so. TOMS has pivoted its practices, noting on its About page, “While shoes can have a big impact, we’ve learned that giving shoes and impact grants can have an even bigger impact.”
It has thus shifted to donating $1 for every $3 the company earns as a response to the needs of a complex and ever-changing world.
TOMS now focuses its efforts on donating shoes and “impact grants” to partners who create change in three areas:
- Creating a safe place to live.
- Supporting mental health.
- Fostering equal access to opportunity.
TOMS’ development is expansive—its Giving Team partners with over 200 humanitarian organizations in 80 countries worldwide. It has gone to great lengths to better understand the communities it serves and has also expanded its partnerships to support endeavors ranging from medical care to safe and sustainable water systems to mental health access.
TOMS’ growth has solidified its position as a socially responsible company, the name of which has become synonymous with giving to those in need. TOMS is a masterclass in long-term ethical marketing that incites tangible change.
Since 1985, Patagonia has been building its reputation as a socially responsible clothing company. With its signature outerwear, Patagonia has been committed to a decades-long war against fast fashion.
Using campaigns like its famous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad, Patagonia’s ethical marketing approach is multi-faceted:
- “1% for the Planet.” Patagonia puts its environmental consciousness on full display with their “1% for the Planet” program. This marketing maneuver features a self-imposed “Earth tax,” which the eco-conscious company donates to environmental nonprofits.
- “Wornwear.” Sharing similar sentiments to its “Don’t Buy” campaign, Patagonia’s “Wornwear” program directly fights fast fashion. It encourages consumers to recycle and buy used garments, all through their online store. This ends the fast fashion cycle and significantly reduces each garment’s carbon, waste, and water footprint.
- “Activism.” Patagonia is a visible and vocal agent of change. It not only promotes social activism; it helps connect consumers with activism in their local area on their Action Works page.
Patagonia has effectively woven ethical marketing into every fabric of its brand identity. This is clear upon the first glance of its website and continues to be on every subsequent page.
Patagonia is a shining example of ethical marketing that is comprehensive, cohesive, and believable. This socially aware organization has built trust with its customers through decades of activism and commitment to change.
In September 2020, a new generic top-level domain name entered the scene: gay.
A quick note for anyone unfamiliar with top-level domains: These are the letters and words seen in website URLs, like “dot com,” “dot org,” and so on. The introduction of “gay” as a new domain simply means another website naming option for users and organizations—one that, in the words of the group DotGay, “opens up a completely new namespace for LGBTQ people to connect online.”
Since the launch of the new domain, various companies, brands, and individuals have registered their own .gay domain name to show their support for the LGBTQ community. That includes Compose.ly.
While some organizations simply redirected their new .gay domain to their preexisting website, Compose.ly created a unique homepage for its Composely.gay site. This included modifying its original copy and various design elements to represent its allyship with the LGBTQ community. For instance, the website states:
Compose.ly is proud to support inclusion and equality by telling the stories of diverse brands and communities.
The team’s CEO and employees also shared about the new initiative on social media.
Ordinarily, such a move could be perceived as self-aggrandizing—another company attempting to use ethical marketing without genuineness. However, Compose.ly’s team was deliberate in sharing about the cause by featuring links to DotGay and sharing that each registered .gay domain directly benefits LGBTQ+ nonprofit groups. As a result, Compose.ly’s intentions are clear: seeking to provide advocacy for a cause important to its team.
Ethical marketing should be built upon trust with a company’s client base. This can be achieved by:
- Committing to transparency. Companies can foster trust in their customer base by being open about their production, employment, and environmental practices.
- Displaying social awareness. To be successful in ethical marketing, a company must identify a clear commitment to a defined social or environmental issue.
- Being an agent of change. Identifying a cause is just the start. A company that is successful in ethical marketing is one that can show its customers tangible effort and change—through numbers, narrative, and consistent outreach.
Customers are more likely to support a company when they feel they can trust their business decisions, identify their moral values, and see tangible good being enacted in the world.
Dr. Bronner’s, Everlane, Warby Parker, TOMS, and Patagonia are successful in their ethical marketing largely in part to the clarity of their message. These companies have effectively committed to causes that are cohesive with their product and meaningful to their customers. Furthermore, they have seamlessly integrated their ethics into the molecular fiber of their brand.
All five of these companies are vibrant examples of the power ethical marketing possesses—not only in building a successful business but in building a brighter future.
This article was written by Compose.ly writer Jennifer Lyons.