Principles of Ethical Marketing

“Aww, it’s just marketing…”

You probably heard people use marketing as a derogatory term.

Admit it, you probably did too.


You can probably think of many examples when marketing wasn’t practiced ethically. It’s true that one doesn’t need to go far to find them. Spam emails that lack “unsubscribe” buttons, misleading packaging, annoying pop-up, or video ads that you cannot skip.

Marketing can go wrong for all the same reasons business can go wrong: misaligned incentives, short-term focus, and tunnel vision.

But business is not inherently and inevitably net-negative to society – quite the contrary. So isn’t marketing.

The thing is not all marketing is created equal. It’s just that some people in marketing make the wrong decisions. Just like some engineers ignore safety standards, some doctors overprescribe medications, and some businesses pollute the environment.

Essentially, marketing is simply helping organizations serve more customers.

More specifically, marketing is about finding the right customers who actually need your product, using their feedback to make the product better, and consistently communicating useful information through the right channels and at scale.

With this in mind, I decided to outline a few high-level principles of ethical marketing.

Principles of Ethical Marketing

  1. Create value before capturing value.
  2. Long-term over short-term optimization.
  3. Customer feedback over company politics.
  4. Educate customers instead of misleading them.
  5. Build products that people want instead of selling the ones you have.
  6. Target customers who can benefit from the product instead of targeting everyone.
  7. Measure NPS, retention, virality, and product usage in addition to ROI, revenue, and growth metrics.
  8. Consider the impact of marketing decisions on employees, other companies, society, government, and the environment.

Here you go, a small manifesto of sorts.

How Marketing Can Be Helpful

Here are just some practical examples:

  • Marketing can conduct research on customer needs, preferences, and purchase drivers. This, in turn, can help companies build the right products instead of wasting millions on the development of unwanted products.
  • Marketing can target the right audience and help customers discover products they can actually be interested in. This, in turn, can save money otherwise wasted on advertising to prospects who’d never purchase a product.
  • Marketing can help educate customers so that they make better decisions and learn to use complex products faster. This, in turn, can help companies retain customers and grow revenue.
  • Marketing can create useful content that customers would like to read, watch, or listen to. This, in turn, can help companies build strong brands.
  • Marketing can help automate, customize, and scale company communications. Thousands of customers can get product news via email and blog subscriptions. This, in turn, can save money otherwise spent on 1:1 communication done by customer support or sales teams.

Practical Takeaways

  • If you are in a leadership position, create the right incentive structure at your company that motivates people to create long-term value.
  • If you are on an engineering or product team, engage marketing early to get customer feedback, and build products that people actually want.
  • If you are on a marketing team, be conscious of the broader implications of your decisions, and educate others on how marketing can help.

Will all companies and all teams be able to follow all the principles all the time? Of course, not. There are always constraints. You might be stuck with the product you have. You might be limited in terms of what decisions you can make as a marketing team. You might be given aggressive short-term goals, etc.

But even if we shift the balance a little bit, the world might become a slightly better place. And people might say “Wow, that was great marketing” a little bit more often.

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