Episode 22 | 10.07.2024

Can Marketing Be Ethical? The Uncomfortable Reality

This week Charlie Martin sat down with Neil Wilkins, founder of The Mindful Collective and Managing Director of Viper Marketing, to explore a provocative question: Can marketing truly be ethical? With over 35 years of experience, Neil offered a nuanced perspective on the challenges and opportunities in aligning marketing practices with ethical principles.

Listen to the full podcast episode on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.

Neil Wilkins has witnessed the transformation of marketing from its early days to the present, where sustainability and ethical considerations are increasingly at the forefront. “I can remember marketing pre-internet, pre-social media, and now we’re into a whole new realm of marketing with sustainability, climate crisis, AI, and the metaverse,” he reflected. This shift has necessitated a reevaluation of marketing strategies to meet evolving consumer expectations and societal demands.

 

The Ethical Dilemma

One of the core topics discussed was the inherent tension in marketing: the drive to sell versus the commitment to ethical practices. Neil candidly acknowledged this challenge, stating,

“It is an uncomfortable truth. The vast majority of people that we either work for or work with are still working to the old model.”

He emphasised that many businesses are yet to fully embrace the shift towards value-driven, purpose-led marketing, despite the clear benefits it offers.

 

Aligning Brand Mission with Marketing

Neil highlighted the importance of aligning a brand’s mission with its marketing efforts to build authenticity and trust.

“When your marketing strategies are clearly aligned with your core values, they speak more authentically to your audience, building a stronger emotional connection,”

he explained. This alignment not only enhances credibility but also fosters deeper, more meaningful relationships with customers.

 

Transparency and Authenticity

Transparency is crucial in fostering trust. Neil argued that brands must be open about their practices, even when they fall short of perfection. “It’s about just this open honesty that nothing ever was perfect. We need to be proud of the fact that we’re on a journey,” he said. He advocated for sharing progress publicly to build credibility and invite customer collaboration.

 

Storytelling: The Customer as the Hero

Effective storytelling places the customer at the center, making them the hero of the narrative. Neil advised, “The stories they’re telling, the way they position their products, it feels like they really have listened.” He also introduced the “rule of thirds” in storytelling: one-third personal, one-third pointing to valuable content, and one-third promoting the brand.

 

Practical Steps for Ethical Marketing

Neil provided actionable strategies for adopting ethical marketing practices:

Documenting Impact: Keep a portfolio of incremental changes to track progress and build confidence.

Third-Party Verification: Use tangible, verified evidence to support claims and avoid greenwashing. “Tangible, verified evidence is the absolute key to being authentic and properly trustworthy,” he stated.

 

Building Intimate Customer Relationships

Moving away from transactional marketing to building intimate, collaborative relationships with customers is essential. Neil highlighted that this shift requires marketers to be vulnerable and open to feedback. “We need to move away from marketing being a monologue to being much more collaborative,” he emphasised.

Neil cited examples of brands excelling in mission-driven marketing, including Patagonia and Marks & Spencer. He also mentioned startups like bamboo clothing brands that are purpose-led from inception, serving as models for other businesses.

 

Advice for Aspiring Marketers

For junior marketers, Neil offered this advice:

“Document and put into a portfolio every little incremental piece of value that you add.”

By focusing on small, impactful changes, marketers can build a track record of making a positive impact and foster confidence in their ethical practices.

Neil Wilkins’ insights provide a roadmap for navigating the complexities of ethical marketing. By aligning marketing strategies with core missions, embracing transparency, and fostering genuine customer relationships, businesses can build trust and drive sustainable growth. The conversation underscores that while the journey towards ethical marketing is challenging, it is both necessary and rewarding.

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