Ethics in Marketing: Bigger, Better, Best – It’s not that simple

New marketers are the key to consumer trust

As marketing professionals, we all want to promote our products and services as the best. It’s our job to increase revenue or bring in more clients, but many inexperienced, new marketers don’t realize that using superlatives such as “we’re the best” or “we have the highest quality” can be very dangerous. You hear it all the time on radio and TV. You see it on billboards, online and in print. This is a very common mistake when you rely on a radio rookie or television intern to write your script. These media companies don’t hire marketing professionals – they hire sales staff.  They don’t know the laws in your industry. They don’t know your products or services better than you do, so they oftentimes just say the only thing they can come up with… unsubstantiated claims that your product is superior. It’s a slippery slope that is best to avoid.

When you claim your company is the best, you may have to prove it or face consequences. In many industries – healthcare, legal, pharmaceutical, for instance – it’s not just frowned upon, but your company could face significant fines…or worse… losing their license. And whose head do you think will be on the plate if you, as the professional marketer, let that happen? So does that mean we have to say our company is lousy or second best? Not at all.

Find the niche

The most important thing you can do as a marketer is find out what your company’s competitive advantage is. Where does your company excel?

  • Did your company establish a produce or service in the industry? (If you were the first one, be sure to use “premiere” rather than “premier” to avoid claims)
  • Does your company serve a special population, clientele, geographic location?
  • Is your company’s culture something unusual where you can use a different voice or strategy to stand out?
  • Is your customer service or return policy something that removes buyer angst?

You don’t have to be the top dog in your industry to gain a loyal following and build a successful company. Look at Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. They didn’t have to go head to head against Breyers when they started. They simply sold small batches of unique flavors at a hefty price, and consumers gobbled them up and demanded more. And in doing so, they created a subset within their industry: micro-batch ice cream. Have you seen how many micro-batch companies have popped up now?

You’re the best, so back it up

But you really ARE the best, right? Some ranking agency has told you so. J.D. Powers & Associates or U.S. News & World Report has dubbed your company the best in a specific category. Just about every industry has an organization that recognizes outstanding companies in the field. In those cases, it’s perfectly find to toot your horn. When you promote your company’s achievements, do so ethically and transparently:

  1. Use the exact verbiage used by the accrediting organization to promote your accolades
  2. Provide a link to how their methodology came about to determine your company’s ranking
  3. Disclose in footnotes whether or not you paid the company a fee or were required to pay for membership in the organization to be included in the ranking
  4. Be mindful of the dates for which your company received the awards
  5. Never, ever, ever Photoshop an award banner/logo to update it from a previous year to another year even if your company qualifies for that year

He can huff and puff, but don’t let him blow the house down

Avoid puffery, even if your CEO is pressuring you to do so. Writing content that makes claims you can’t back up can cost you customers. If you’re a smaller company that has current technologies but your competitors have new technologies, don’t say you have the “highest quality” …because you don’t. It can be a tough pill to swallow especially when that higher quality technology costs millions of dollars. You may have the highest quality in your town, but if a customer can easily venture to the next town to get better technology, then you’ve lost.

I’ll give you an example. When I worked at one of my hospitals, my CEO asked me to promote our new 16-slice CT scanner to the community saying we have “the most advanced technology.” Our competition who was 30 miles away had a 64-slice CT scanner. Out-migration patterns proved that patients sought medical care in the competition’s area because they had a higher level of care. Therefore, I couldn’t promote our technology as the “most advanced” because our clients’ out-migration pattern determined our market-share included that competition’s geographic location. More “advanced technology” than what we offered was within reach for our patients, and they were willing to drive to get it. What’s the answer then? Promote the benefits of what you DO offer as well as your competitive advantages.

Remember, customers and competitors are watching. If you don’t think someone will report you to the Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau or your licensing agency, just wait until you get your first warning letter. I learned about ethics in marketing early in my career when I touted our company as offering “the best” (our competition didn’t like that). I can guarantee you that I never repeated that mistake.

As the marketing professional, YOU are the one that needs to protect your company. Stick to your ethical guns, provide evidence why you shouldn’t go down that path, and provide an alternative to your boss.

The American Marketing Association has a Code of Ethics that marketing professionals vow to uphold.  One of the key tenets is “Represent products in a clear way in selling, advertising and other forms of communication; this includes the avoidance of false, misleading and deceptive promotion.” This is essential because so many times, consumers lose confidence in companies based on what we do and say as marketers.

Be the best – at your job as a professional marketer.

When I was learning marketing 20+ years ago, there were no stand-alone courses in college about marketing ethics. We learned on the job, through trial and error, and by professional organizations teaching us values. Maybe, just maybe a college professor mentioned it in class one day.

There are still plenty of unsavory marketers out there, scamming people, breaking the rules and shattering customer confidence. Don’t be one of them. Rise above it all and be ethical, transparent, and trustworthy as a marketing professional. If you’re reading this blog, you are taking the first step at becoming the future of ethical marketers.

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