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Ethical Marketing in the Age of the Coronavirus

Under normal circumstances, coming up with a successful marketing campaign can be difficult. It needs to appeal to a wide variety of people. It needs to reach those people frequently enough without being overbearing. And, most important, it needs to make people want to buy your products or services, or buy in to your brand as a whole.

Of course, we are not living under normal circumstances, with many people under lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This makes marketing especially tricky, particularly if you run a business that sells non-essential products or services. How do you market to people who are far more concerned with their health or with paying their bills in the face of overwhelming job losses? Should you even market to them at all?

This is an ethical question that has come up for marketers in the age of coronavirus. Can you straddle the line between the needs of your business (profit) and the needs of your customers (health, safety, sustenance, etc.) with appropriate sensitivity?

Some unscrupulous businesses are using less than ethical tactics to exploit the pandemic, but we know that the reward for doing this is only temporary and consumers will remember if they were misled or goaded into buying a product out of fear. Taking an ethical approach can engender far greater loyalty in your consumer base for years to come.

What exactly is ethical marketing?

Ethical marketing doesn’t have just one definition. It also encompasses a wide variety of ethics issues. In basic terms, ethical marketing is any type of marketing endeavor that is transparent, factual, and not misleading.

An ad that practices good ethics would tell you what the product is, what it can do for you, and how it does it. By contrast, if a new company cropped up claiming to have the “best smartphone in the galaxy” that can solve all your problems, it would rightfully be met with skepticism from the general public.

But, ethical marketing goes beyond ad copy and can be a measure of what your business does rather than what it says. In recent years, many companies have enacted policies aimed at curbing the effects of climate change, ending world hunger, or promoting fair trade. This effort to maintain some corporate social responsibility doesn’t always make it into advertising, but it can become part of your brand’s ethos if done correctly (i.e., with genuinely altruistic motives).

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Ethical advertisements and the coronavirus

Ethical marketing has taken on a new look in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The world, at least for now, no longer operates like it normally would, and brands have had to make rapid changes to their marketing strategies. You’ve undoubtedly seen and heard the shift in tone in television and digital ads.

For essential businesses like grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, or restaurants, the tone of the ads has been largely informative, letting customers know they are still open and taking appropriate precautions. For instance, Pizza Hut and Domino’s have both run ads touting their “contactless” delivery.

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Contactless Delivery Business :30

Under normal circumstances, coming up with a successful marketing campaign can be difficult. It needs to appeal to a wide variety of people. It needs to reach those people frequently enough without being overbearing. And, most important, it needs to make people want to buy your products or services,

Others have taken an approach that urges viewers to stay home and follow relevant guidelines. IKEA, for example, started a campaign in Spain that showed various indoor activities from the house’s perspective with the tagline “Yo Me Quedo en Casa” (“I Stay Home”). The ad used footage from a 2017 campaign which allowed them to avoid issues with social distancing guidelines.

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IKEA: I Stay Home

Under normal circumstances, coming up with a successful marketing campaign can be difficult. It needs to appeal to a wide variety of people. It needs to reach those people frequently enough without being overbearing. And, most important, it needs to make people want to buy your products or services,

Some companies are avoiding social distancing snafus by featuring no people and using text, animation, and/or images to get their message across. For instance, in early March, Hershey’s removed an ad from the airwaves that featured handshakes and hugs, both actions that could potentially spread the virus. Instead, their ads have predominantly featured their chocolate bars with voice-overs and text.

Even non-essential businesses have changed their advertising model. Hotels.com, which operates in the hard-hit hospitality industry, filled airtime with ads featuring their famous mascot, Captain Obvious, social distancing rather than spending time in hotels.

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Hotels.com – Social Distancing :15

Under normal circumstances, coming up with a successful marketing campaign can be difficult. It needs to appeal to a wide variety of people. It needs to reach those people frequently enough without being overbearing. And, most important, it needs to make people want to buy your products or services,

All in all, these ads have a few things in common:

They acknowledge uncertainty
They promote safe practices
They provide basic information about precautionary measures
They let you know how they can help
They are transparent about what they can and cannot offer
They are levelheaded and free from exaggeration
They do not promote panic or misinformation

Being conscientious and sensitive to the needs of your customers will result in better brand loyalty in the long term.

Marketing through ethical actions

Ads certainly aren’t the only way to engage in ethical marketing. Many businesses have taken actions to serve the greater good during the coronavirus pandemic, most notably by producing products that are essential for patients and frontline workers. LVMH, for example, began focusing more heavily on the production of hand sanitizers and donated about 13 tons of the disinfecting gel to France’s public hospitals. Other beauty brands like L’Oreal and Coty followed suit.

The automobile industry has also taken up the mantle with both Ford and GM reconstituting their factories to construct ventilators and personal protective equipment. Fashion and textile brands like Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, American Giant, and Los Angeles Apparel have all pivoted to producing masks. It’s clear that being helpful in a time of great need improves the standing of these brands.

Other brands have offered substantial assistance to their employees. For instance, Microsoft and Cisco both guaranteed that employees would be paid throughout the duration of the crisis, whether those employees are able to work or not. Major internet providers like Comcast and AT&T also pledged to avoid service interruptions, regardless of a customer’s ability to pay during the crisis.

Could these policies hurt a company’s bottom line? Sure. But failing to provide protections to vulnerable people during such an uncertain and chaotic time can lose a lot of goodwill. Positioning your company as a helpful, ethical, and essential facet of combating the coronavirus and mitigating the damaging effects of widespread lockdowns will only do you favors in the long run.

RELATED: 5 Smart Advertising Strategies During the COVID-19 Crisis: Why You Should Be Spending More Right Now

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