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What is “Responsible Marketing”?

2012 July 28
by Tom Watson

I just finished reading Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley’s book, The Responsible Company, and enjoyed it immensely. There is so much there that resonates with my own thoughts and philosophy on the subject of “responsibility” in a commercial, industrial, organizational – and even personal – context. The Responsible Company

First, I find their argument regarding the use of the word “sustainability” to be a very reasonable and honest one. Simply illustrated, the native Americans lived “sustainably”; where we, as a post industrial revolution society clearly do not. I have a hard time finding very many things that I do or I use that are truly “sustainable”. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to me, but it means that my efforts fall far short of what would truly fit an honest definition of the word.

So, what is “responsible marketing”? Is it using eco-friendly materials, using less paper, using more digital technology to save on materials and cost of delivery? Sure, that’s part of it. But the core element of responsible marketing is truth. Sure, we need to romanticize our products and services somewhat to put them in their best light, but that is something that can be done truthfully, and not manipulatively.

Don't Buy This JacketLet’s use an example from Chouinard’s company, Patagonia. Their marketing truthfully but attractively presents the benefits to the prospect. Neither the product design quality nor the prices are compromised by the temptation to go cheap and appeal to a larger audience to expand volume at any cost. They stick to their expressed mission of reducing, repairing, reusing, recycling and provide appropriate services. Their integrity is probably best displayed in their November 2011 advertising campaign: “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. Read the AdWeek article  covering the ad, and a broader article about Patagonia’s approach by FastCompany. It sounds like reverse psychology, but they really meant it. Their goal was actually to help reduce the wasteful buying frenzy of “Black Friday”, including sales of their own apparel. That’s extremely honest marketing.

A more conventional and less extreme example is Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) for whom I worked for many years. I can’t speak for their approach today, but when they were smaller and younger, they built their business on honest marketing beginning with their products. HP wanted to make sure that the customer got the performance they were expecting so they designed the equipment to exceed performance expectation. This ensured that the product met all expectations. They also designed equipment to meet some extreme usage situations. When we stated the performance specs in marketing, we understated them – and the understated specs still exceeded the competition’s. The products were built to last. One ad campaign chronicled real equipment recovered from actual – not staged – disastrous situations such as being dropped in a lake or from a plane. After being dried and powered-up, the equipment still worked. This kind of honesty translated into a rock-solid reputation that was a significant factor in growing this company from $3 billion annual revenue in 1980 to $140 billion today.

Perhaps you are wondering how that would make a difference in becoming a “responsible” company.

Honest claims will persuade only those who are most likely to benefit from what is sold. It is wasteful to sell something to someone who ultimately does not need it – they will not use it and eventually throw it away, adding to the landfills. But even if they don’t throw it away, the company has expended energy and used resources to produce and deliver something the buyer does not need. The best sales people know that  sales is simply matching the right buyer up with the right product or service, not trying to convince or “sell” them.

Honest claims work by helping to maintain the focus on the right target audience. In fact, the process begins starting when the product is designed and then produced and delivered with high standards, quality and efficiency. The product or service will truly speak for itself and ultimately validate itself. Marketing simply makes the introduction, provides the qualification information to sales, helps sales make the initial connection. The product or service delivers home the point when the buyer receives and experiences all aspects of the product from delivery, packaging, usability, quality, support, all the way through durability. Marketing is empty and proved a lie when the product does not live up to the expectations marketing builds up, or the buyer finds that it does not meet their expectations or needs.

Advertising has long been regarded by many as a cloaked and unreliable medium for learning the facts about a product or service. It is often basal. Just an attention-getter, at best simply a reminder of the existence of a product or service. The goal of advertising is to appeal to our emotions and emotional urges. Marketing products today needs to address and fulfill the needs of consideration. Understanding that, a company can still employ advertising to it’s benefit while not resorting to disregarding the truth.

The same has been the case to some degree in search marketing, although users are not nearly as jaded (yet) about search results as they are about the facade of advertising. There’s nothing sadder than web marketing that uses the same old school, low road advertising ploys to lead an audience to their item regardless of whether it’s what the audience is really needing. It’s not working. Really.

As an example, for a long time I have felt that SEO is a manipulative practice used to garner visits by “working the system” to get higher search rankings above competitors undeservedly. It should be about the relevancy of the content, and the truthfulness of that content compared to what the visitor is seeking. I am encouraged to see that although good SEO practices include making the most of the high caliber content your site contains, its manipulative practices of back-links and link purchasing are being negated by the search engines, particularly Google, rendering them ineffective. Read the article in Forbes.

If you believe SEO in it’s current form has it’s place and this editorial is off-base, I would argue along with Ken Krogue that taking advantage of genuine quality content within your own site is appropriate and necessary. Posting appropriate content to social and PR sites is relevant use of those channels. Blogs and social media then link to your site because your rich content is compelling. This is their prerogative and is an endorsement of the genuineness of your content. That isn’t the issue.  Rather, it is the external manipulation of content and links that I find to be objectionable and unethical.

I understand that in this tough economy a business has to do everything it can to grow sales. But if we do not maintain an ethical boundary in our practices, we find the foundation of our economy and society – trust – will erode to the detriment of everyone.

I also believe that audiences today are more discerning about how many marketing messages they receive every day. People increasingly see through the shallow manipulations of hyped or exaggerated copy. Responsible marketing. It means truthfully representing your product or service and it’s value, honestly attracting the appropriate members of your audience to it, and then delivering on the pledge. This is just as important aspect of being a responsible company, and will bring you another step closer to the ultimate goal of “sustainability”.

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