I’m willing to wager that you’ve come across a recent marketing campaign that just doesn’t seem right. Sometimes it’s obvious when a brand is making false or exaggerated claims. Other times, the sentiment, imagery, or messaging just seems a little off.
Many of the campaigns we’re presented with fall short of what we’d consider ethical marketing, but a shift in consumer behavior is changing the way brands think about their approach.
What Is Ethical Marketing?
Ethical marketing is all about doing the right thing as a business, doing the right thing in marketing, and using marketing to emphasize that you are doing the right thing.
It often involves being socially, culturally, and environmentally sensitive, responsible, and proactive. It’s about building campaigns that reflect and emphasize your company’s corporate social responsibility initiatives, ethical sourcing and production practices, operational transparency, and workplace equality, to name a few.
Investing in ethical marketing is a long-game strategy oriented towards building trust and an authentic brand image for your customers.
But committing to the ethical marketing track isn’t a quick fix. It takes deep digging, and there are many obstacles.
I talked with Valerie Stachurski, founder and president of Charming Media—a public relations company based in Toronto—to find out more about her company’s recent ethical pivot.
Charming Media’s Road to Success
Picture going out for a delicious meal with an old friend—plenty of great wine and candid conversation. This is what it’s like to meet Valerie Stachurski for the first time. She is easily the friendliest, bubbliest, and yes, most charming person I’ve met in the PR world.
But she’s something else, too. She’s genuine. When we talk, I don’t feel like she’s constantly trying to pitch or sell me on things. Nor is she overly gushy or disingenuous in her sentiments when she does talk about her clients. She’s honestly excited to share new brands and products that she personally uses and would recommend to her own friends and family. This honesty makes all the difference.
Charming Media was born of this very personal approach to wanting to share the best of her experiences with the world. It grew from a lifestyle blog into a successful public relations agency of record for clients like Turkish Airlines. She now has a gorgeous office, a loyal team, and an ever-growing list of fashion, beauty, travel, and wellness clients. Her career journey has always been rooted in searching for authentic identity and passions.
Valerie Stachurski (middle), founder and president of Charming Media. Image attribution: Joel Levy
Making the Ethical Pivot
Valerie recently announced a pivot in her business towards a more pro-social brand image, which includes only representing cruelty-free beauty brands, and cultivating a greater focus on health and wellness:
“I have always known that I can only represent brands I feel passionately about, meaning that I would be excited to use it personally or recommend it to my family and friends.
“In July of 2017, I was motivated by my own personal health and wellness circumstances to take a more mindful approach to what I was consuming diet-wise and putting on my body beauty-wise.
“As I started reading the labels of the beauty products I was using, I felt more and more uncomfortable about what some of these brands represented as a whole. In addition to potentially harmful and non-necessary ingredients and fillers, I researched further into many of the animal-testing practices of corporate companies and what I discovered was truly upsetting. I felt that I could not knowingly put something in or on my body that was meant to make me beautiful, when it came from a place of ugly and unethical practices.
“This is when I started to uncover a whole world of incredible beauty and wellness brands that are not only wildly effective but stem from companies with a conscience and hold like-minded values to my own.
“Some of the best cruelty-free, independently owned companies in the beauty business have massive cult-like followings. In addition to wanting to work with those brands, I wanted to be a part of sharing the stories of those that are smaller, to bring their incredible product to larger audiences.”
Ethical Marketing Isn’t a Trend: It’s the New Norm
This cult-like following of brands that appeal to a highly personal and values-driven approach to consumption indicates a strong and widespread desire for ethical marketing, and ethical businesses in general. Valerie explains this isn’t just a trend: It’s an awakening, and it’s quickly becoming the new norm.
She describes the current time as the era of “the conscientious consumer.” With the rise of the Internet and social media, we now have access to information that was previously unavailable, so we are able to make more-informed decisions about our consumption habits:
“People are flipping over the pretty packaging and looking at labels, ingredients, and manufacturing processes. Large CPG companies recognize this too, with some trying to get ahead of the curve by launching ‘green friendly’ brands to appeal to that particular customer who cares.
“Marketers who ignore this new conscientious way of consumer purchasing will be left playing catch-up when big companies are ready to accept social responsibility and offer their customers a wider array of ethical options.”
The question for marketing leaders—especially of larger organizations that have a tendency to exhibit corporate inertia—is how do we actually make such an ethical pivot to address the future demands of our customers?
Valerie has some sage advice from her company’s successful transformation.
Image attribution: Joel Levy
How to Approach an Ethical Marketing Pivot
Firstly, let’s dismiss any thoughts of a fast fix in this department. It can be tempting to want to get straight to the end without going through the necessary process of arriving at that end authentically.
“Changing a brand image needs to come from a place of authenticity. It is vital to ask yourself, why are we doing this? Is it simply a marketing tactic or are you ready to knock down the foundation and rebuild yourself entirely? You can’t slap a ‘Now Cruelty-Free!’ label on your company but then sway when a big budget client comes knocking at your door that doesn’t align with your new values.”
This need for steadfastness to your ethical commitment comes in all forms. Consider a new manufacturing process that may be faster and cheaper but has a detrimental impact on the environment. A commitment to ethical marketing means a commitment to spending the money and time to adhere to the principles you’re touting to the public. It sometimes means choosing the slower, more expensive route.
But remember that an ethical commitment is a long-term strategy. When more and more consumers demand corporate social responsibility in the form of accountability, pro-social behavior, and ethical products—as Valerie and others firmly believe is an irreversible movement—your company will be better positioned than your competitors to capture this market sentiment.
In order to approach the process authentically, Valerie knew they needed to look at everything: What is our current messaging across all platforms and how does it need to change? How do we present ourselves through our personal channels online?
Valerie dug as deep as modifying the company’s mission statement and considering carefully how this would affect all their current clients and potential new ones. She needed to think through how that new mission statement would play out in reality. How many new clients would she need to turn down in light of it? She needed to analyze all the opportunities she’d be willing to lose in order to take up the new positioning.
She orchestrated a complete rebrand of the website, placing the company’s values front and center. She modified the color scheme and layout, and carried these elements through all their social channels. Her new communication strategy includes a greater emphasis on positive messaging and wellness messaging. She looked to independent, ethically minded beauty brands for inspiration: those with cruelty-free messaging that have cult-like followings.
In addition to all the internal rebranding, the company issued a press release to the public and hosted a media/influencer event to introduce the industry to their new approach and some of their new wellness and cruelty-free clients. This included opportunities for direct engagement and social media sharing initiatives.
Valerie makes it clear that being a values-driven brand doesn’t mean you can’t be a performance-driven brand too. “We don’t rest on the laurels of our values,” explains Valerie. But the ethical change you’d like to make must originate from an honest set of values, and it must manifest itself comprehensively throughout your business, from your mission statement to the daily decisions you make.
We all know how false a rushed and ill-thought-out ethical claim sounds. The difference between authentic ethical marketing and slapping on a cruelty-free label will divide those companies who thrive long-term and those who fizzle.
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Featured image attribution: Noah Buscher
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