Can marketing be good for society? Or is it just about lies and capitalism?
Then and Now: My Relationship With Marketing
A year ago, when I was a third year student writing my dissertation, if you told me that in 2016 I’d be working in marketing and social media, I’d never have believed you.
When I used to momentarily put down my highlighters and textbooks and Google graduate jobs in the media, I was irritated to see so many marketing jobs on the list. I scoffed at the marketing module on my course, thinking “I don’t even consider marketing as media”. As for the social media module, I thought that was a joke. “I can already use Facebook and Twitter, I don’t need an academic lecture on that” I thought. I only realise now how naïve that was. (I’ve used social media and other digital marketing skills in every job I’ve had since my graduation – and used next to zero of my academic knowledge).
My tune started to change when I started an internship with Sustainable Business Parternship, a small local not-for-profit company running training and networking events for green SMEs. I was responsible for their marketing, and assisting with event management. I didn’t use any ‘dodgy’ marketing practises: I just posted to Twitter, wrote blogs posts, assisted with an email newsletter and wrote some copy for a brochure. Plus, the business was doing useful work that I could be proud of. I realised I could enjoy marketing if it was for a business I respected.
I’m now working on marketing (especially social media) for Koru Architects, an architecture practice specialising in low-carbon design, and Sillman Thomas, a progressive executive search firm with a focus around the Sustainable Development Goals – both small local values-based companies. I’m also running the Post Growth Alliance, a group of like-minded nonprofits which use their collective social media reach to maximise exposure.
Basically – I’m using digital marketing in all of my work, and finding it very creative and rewarding. How times have changed since I was scoffing at it as a student.
A good example of my current work is this tweet, which links to a blog post on our website, which then features a call to action to get an in-depth report in exchange for an email address – turning an interested reader into a lead.
— Koru Architects (@koruarchitects) March 27, 2016
Feeding the Machine: Deceptive Consumerism
The main reason I was at first dismissive of the whole sector is because I had some pretty unrealistic – yet perhaps understandable – assumptions about marketing.
1) I thought of it as ‘’using my skills for the dark side’’ – i.e. helping massive evil corporations make even more profits while abusing people and trashing the environment
2) I thought it was done by annoying, stalking and deceiving people with cold calls, spam and manipulative psychological ploys
No wonder I didn’t want to do it.
Linked to both the above assumptions, I also thought of marketing (and advertising, which I saw as the same thing) as the engine of consumerism. Because the world economy is currently structurally destructive – essentially turning nature into pollution with some utility and wealth extracted in the middle – I found persuading people to buy stuff a morally dubious calling.
Ethical Marketing: Is It Possible?
But does it have to be like that? I don’t think so. The two factors that determine whether marketing is ethical or unethical are:
1) Who you work for: what kind of clients or employer do you work for? What do they do? Is their business model sustainable? Do you believe in their product or service? Do they treat people with respect? Are they values focused or just profit focused? Basically – is their success good for society? I would never take a marketing job at a company that depends on destruction for its success. (I’d rather go back to waitressing!)
2) How you work: What kind of methods and tools do you use? Do you harass, annoy, stalk and interrupt people that don’t want to hear from you? Do you pretend, distract, misconstrue and lie to persuade potential customers? Do you desperately encourage the ceaseless consumption of crap nobody needs? Or do you creatively communicate with people you can actually help?
These two factors – the who and the how - are what separates the kind of dodgy marketing that gives the whole industry a bad name, to the creative and rewarding work that I enjoy.
Values Based Business
I’m absolutely convinced that business can be a force for good – and often is. There’s plenty of small and medium sized businesses out there that offer a genuinely valuable product or service, are motivated by passion more than profit, pay their staff and suppliers fairly, respect their customers, and make an effort to reduce their environmental impact. Some even work to make a positive impact on the environment. While there are many businesses that behave in a responsible and ethical way without any labels, there’s also a rising public interest in more progressive business models. Triple bottom lines, shared value, CSR, multi-stakeholder interests, B-Corps, social enterprises and cooperatives are all becoming more mainstream by the day. Most exciting, the Post Growth Institute is publishing a book this summer on how not-for-profit enterprise can lead the way to a truly sustainable market economy.
Basically, it’s quite possible to work for an ethical values-based business that is adding to the good of society, not harming it. (We still need to watch out for greenwashing, though).
Also, while arguably the marketing of a greener version of something is still consumption that could be avoided, that way of thinking isn’t very pragmatic. Let’s use the eco-architecture company I work for as an example. If we didn’t exist, a client that didn’t care too much about being low-carbon would go to another practice in the region, perhaps one that has a similar architectural style. If the client really wanted a low-carbon design, they could go to another sustainable architecture practice. But what if there were none? What would they do then? They would most-likely just use one that doesn’t focus on sustainability.
My point is that almost no one would simply go “oh well I guess we won’t have a new house then” and give up on the idea. A green company selling something that fills a genuine need will be reducing environmental impact by selling their stuff – because it will be them instead of a competitor, not them instead of nothing.
However, selling something people don’t have any need or even much desire for is another story entirely.
Inbound & Content Marketing
Far from my attitude a year ago, I now know that marketing doesn’t need to be annoying or deceptive. It can be fun and useful. Luckily, the most ethical way is also the most effective and cutting-edge way.
Traditional, aka ‘outbound’ or ‘disruptive’ marketing is on the way out. TV and print ads, cold calling, spammy bought email lists and the hard-sell pushy sales rep are all giving less punch than they used to. Online ads are suffering too. Increasingly, consumers do all their research online (often with ad-blocker) before even considering talking to the company.
In contrast, inbound marketing is now all the rage. Instead of being pushy and invasive, inbound marketing uses useful content to attract interested prospects and build trust – so they’ll come to you when they’re ready to buy, and tell their friends. Inbound marketing uses tools like blogs, email, social media, ebooks, infographics, videos etc to offer valuable info and build relationships with people. But only people that are actually interested.
It’s basically a much better way to do marketing, that’s snowballing in popularity.
Use The Power
Effective marketing is clearly a very powerful force, and like all powerful things, it can be used to help or harm.
I would never have considered this a year ago, but I believe it can be a force for good. If – and it’s a big if – it’s done for an ethical company (or organisation) and in an ethical manner.
Of course, there’s also marketing for charities and public institutions – which are more likely to have socially beneficial causes but still need to be using ethical methods.
PS. Apologies for my shockingly infrequent posting to this blog. I’m working three jobs and am struggling to find the time. But hopefully I’ll be posting again soon!