3 steps towards a more ethical marketing strategy

December 13, 2021

I'm lucky enough to meet lots of other professionals working to do good through their business. I recently had a fascinating chat with Claudia Kozeny-Pelling from Translate Digital Marketing about all the things that bug us about certain marketing tactics. Claudia has some brilliant insights on this topic and was kind enough to agree to share her thoughts in this guest blog. Enjoy!

How can you market more ethically?

Nobody is perfect, but there are definitely things you can do to create a more ethical marketing strategy for your business. Despite what we see on social media every day, marketing doesn’t have to be sleazy or sneaky. The good news, everyone can implement the following recommended tactics quite easily. You don’t have to do it all at once either! Just tackle these areas one by one and feel better about your business.

What is an ethical marketing strategy?

Sian Conway-Wood from the fabulous ethical hour has summarised this well:

“An ethical marketing strategy covers two things: What you market (ethical and sustainable products and services) and how you market (sales techniques without the sleaze!)”

I believe that what you market and who you work with (e.g. collaborators, supply chains, selling platforms and clients) is crucial. The best ethical marketing efforts aren't worth a lot if you sell something that’s inherently unethical or collaborate with partners, use tools or serve clients that are questionable.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll take it for granted that you have already worked on this part of your business and focus on how you should market instead.

1.  Be transparent and truthful

Whether you sell products or services to your target market, make sure you stick to the truth. Of course, we all want to persuade our target audience to buy from us. That's why we promote the benefits of our goods and services on our website, social media channels, and printed marketing materials.

However, what we see far too often is a complete over-exaggeration of what certain services or products can do for customers.

Say “no” to bro-marketing and income claim marketing

Let’s start with services, such as social media marketing. There are many self-proclaimed gurus these days who allege to have found a new marketing strategy or secret success formula. Frequently, their social media feeds are portraying them as rich, attractive and successful. If you only bought and implemented their ideas and marketing strategies, you too could be making “6/7/8 figures” and live happily ever after. This tactic is a mixture of “bro-marketing” and “income claim marketing”. Yes, it works. For some reason, we trust what we read online and tend to believe these claims, even if there’s no hard proof.

Here’s a list of what we don’t see on their feeds:

  • Their accounting books.
  • The team and paid tools that actually help them achieve their goals.
  • Their face - and life - without a filter.
  • Their mistakes and bad days.
  • The years of trying to build up a business model that works.

This also holds for other service providers of course. Whether they are consultants, coaches, copywriters, translators or other experts, quite a few use the above tactics. This doesn’t mean that these people are inherently “unethical”. Many just follow what’s been done a million times before, without thinking too much about the integrity of the marketing strategy they use.

Stop greenwashing and using misleading terms

How you market your products also matters. For example, I recently came across a German mock-award for goods that were sold using horrendous greenwashing and false advertising tactics. This included, for example:

  • “Climate-neutral” chicken breasts that turned out to be wrongly certified.
  • A "biodegradable" and "plastic-free" wrapper that actually contained plastic. (And wasn’t even easily recyclable.)
  • "Healthy” sweets with added vitamins that had a massive 60% sugar content.

These sales techniques aren’t rare in the UK, either. Whether businesses greenwash investment funds or mislabel products by using the term “natural”, they all mislead consumers into thinking that their products are somehow better than those of their competitors.

Many of the marketing practices above would be against the UK’s Broadcast Code and laws on misleading and unfair marketing communications, too, so it’s worth checking that you’re keeping to these regulations.

Be yourself. Be honest.

So why not show people who you actually are and what your product or service can really do for them?

In the ethical marketing and social media groups I’ve seen (e.g., the ethical move, Ethical Hour, Little Green Duck, Social Media for Humans), I come across many business owners who openly show their lives and successes but also their vulnerabilities. They don’t guarantee to get you a certain level of revenue each month. They don’t promise you easy money or use toxic positivity to persuade you to buy from them.

Not only that, but they still manage to market themselves well and come across as real human beings rather than the ‘rich and successful’ clones we tend to encounter elsewhere on social media.

Ethical business owners will need to be honest about the origin, benefits and ingredients of their products too. If things aren’t 100% perfect, it’s much better to be honest about it. For example, you may still use plastic wrappers for certain reasons (shipping regulations etc). In that case, tell your customers and also say what you are doing to reduce plastic use in other areas of your business. This can all be part of an ethical advertising or marketing campaign.

2.  Stop using dark patterns

Although the term “dark patterns” may be new to you, you certainly will have come across them many times. I’ll show you some examples below.

What are dark patterns and how are they used online?

The website “Dark Patterns” is an excellent introduction to this topic. It defines “dark patterns” as “tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn't mean to, like buying or signing up for something.”

This includes, for example:
  • Promotional pop-ups that you can’t easily close without signing up to an offer.
  • Making it very easy to buy something in one click, but difficult to cancel or return it.
  • Using forced continuity to keep people subscribed or in memberships (i.e. automatically renewing subscriptions without giving advance notice.)
  • Using psychological trickery to force a newsletter sign-up (e.g. giving a ‘choice’ between “Yes, I want to profit from your fantastic business tips” and “No, I don’t want to make my business a success”. This is also called “confirmshaming”.)
  • Unwanted offers of mediocre upsells or downsells before consumers can reach their shopping basket. 

There are also a number of other psychological tricks we should be wary of, including charm pricing and artificial scarcity, as well as fake money-back guarantees or offers that have to be taken up within a very short period of time. FOMO is real, but these tactics will eventually backfire as customers start realising how these methods work and tire of being treated like this.

What can ethical marketers do instead?

Ethical marketing strategies should, at the very least, include the following action points:

  • Avoid pop-ups which can feel very intrusive. Your newsletter or special offer can still sit prominently on your website without being too much in your clients’ face.
  • Make it as easy to buy as to cancel or return. A good user experience is smooth.
  • Remind your clients well in advance when a certain service or membership will renew. Give them enough time to cancel. After all there’s no point hanging on to clients who don’t appreciate your service or feel pressured into staying.
  • Don’t force people to sign up for your newsletter. For example, don’t make leaving an email address a prerequisite for joining your Facebook group.
  • Give clear and neutral opting-in and opting-out options. Don’t use “confirmshaming” tactics. For example, “Yes, please” or “No, thanks” would be fine when asking whether consumers would like to subscribe to your newsletter (if you have to stick with pop-ups, that is!)
  • Avoid upsells and downsells. If your products or services are really worth their salt, they don't need to be sneaked in just before the checking-out stage anyway.

You could even make the above part of a mission statement on your website, so your clients will know why you don’t use certain unethical advertising or marketing tactics.

Finally if you’re the consumer and are getting annoyed with dark patterns: why not bring this up politely with the business in question?

3.  Treat your target audience’s data with respect

The data of our clients, followers and web visitors can be an important marketing tool for business owners. However with the UK GDPR and DPA 2018 regulations, it’s more crucial than ever to treat data with respect.

Ethical brand owners must keep all personal data they have collected as safely as possible, and only for a certain period. If you “process” personal data (and this includes just receiving or even deleting it), register with the ICO (for UK businesses) or with your national data protection agency if applicable.

Never add people to your mailing list without their explicit permission. Everyone on your list must have specifically opted in to receive your newsletter. You can’t collect their data for one purpose (e.g. for entry into a social media competition) and then use the same information for your mailing list without asking.

If you use cookies, including Google Analytics or the Facebook pixel, you’ll need to use UK GDPR-compliant cookie banners and adequate privacy policy text on your website, too.


As a good ethical marketing strategist, you must respect your audience’s time. Avoid emailing them daily or even multiple times per day. Only write when you have something useful or important to say, and don’t just focus on selling.

To summarise, we’ve seen that ethical companies don’t have to be perfect. However, they should put in place positive changes that will improve their brand and marketing campaigns. And, with an ethical approach, they’re also more likely to win loyal customers.

I hope this post is going to be helpful on your ethical marketing journey!

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling is a bilingual SEO content writer, copywriter and translator (English/German) with a special interest in ethical social media marketing. She loves working with ethical and sustainable businesses. https://translatedigitalmarketing.com

You can also find Claudia on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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