Ethical Marketing: Definition, Principles, & Examples

Rebecca Liew
Content marketer and writer. Addicted to words, stationery, and exploring new places on foot.
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    Ethical marketing is tricky to talk about. How do you even begin to define it, given the very concept of ethics varies from person to person?

    To broaden my initial understanding of the topic, I:

    • Spoke with three marketers whose marketing efforts are guided by their ethics.
    • Polled marketers on both Ahrefs’ and my personal Twitter account.
    • Trawled websites and other resources.

    As a caveat, this guide is by no means exhaustive nor perfect.

    My aim is to help you better understand what ethical marketing encompasses, what it means to different marketers, and how you might consider incorporating it into your business.

    In this article, we’ll cover these:

    Ethical marketing is an extension of ethics—which is defined as a system of moral principles.

    Put simply, ethical marketing is when you promote a product, service, or brand in a way that aligns with your values and morals. This can mean not making inflated claims, as well as practicing full transparency and openness. Your actions depend on what you define as ethical.

    The principles of ethical marketing depend on, well, your principles. When polled on Twitter, here’s what Ahrefs followers and marketers had to say:

    Following these polls, I spoke with three marketers in the SEO space whose ethics shape their marketing efforts. These were their thoughts:

    Maria Soleil, Soleil Marketing

    Maria Soleil founded boutique agency Soleil Marketing to help purpose-driven brands create a positive social and environmental impact. For instance, she’s shaping the marketing strategy for social enterprise Etrify—a climate tech-focused startup that helps businesses track and report their carbon emissions.

    For me, the principles of ethical marketing include being responsible, honest and transparent in promotional activities, prioritizing data privacy, not engaging in pressure tactics, avoiding using UX dark patterns, using inclusive language, and more.

    Ethical marketing is also about using suppliers, partners, and platforms that align with your morals and values. For example, I no longer use Meta to promote my business, and am exploring how to help my clients be less reliant on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. 

    Alice Karolina, The Ethical Move

    Alice Karolina is the founder of The Ethical Move (TEM), a movement built on three commitments:

    • To put the person before the sale
    • To communicate inclusively, truthfully, and clearly
    • To take responsibility for TEM’s part in changing the marketplace

    For instance, TEM aims to provide the resources and space for like-minded marketers to congregate through its upcoming community, The Ethical Move Community. This will play host to events, summits, and roundtables.

    TEM also maintains a Medium page that discusses manipulation in marketing to help readers better understand ethical marketing. You’d do well checking out its newsletters too. Each edition features a marketer’s pledge to ethical marketing and why they’re choosing to be a part of the movement.

    The core principle of ethical marketing is how we do it. Ethical marketing is a matter of collective learning and unlearning over time. Changing tactics is just the beginning; challenging our core beliefs and really listening to our audience is the juicy stuff.

    Jamie Indigo, DeepCrawl

    Jamie Indigo is a senior technical SEO analyst at DeepCrawl. She previously penned a piece on ethical SEO for Search Engine Journal.

    As a brand, ethical marketing can come in the form of transparency and fairness in hiring, salary, and safety.

    Is it ethical to ask candidates to do hours of free labor for an opportunity to work for you? Once someone has interacted with your campaign, website, or converted, how does your business store that data? If you’re buying data, how was it obtained?

    These questions are thought exercises that allow us to see the common thread. Ethical marketing is a lens to view our marketing tactics and consider if we’re treating users as humans, first and foremost.

    The difference between ethical marketing and sustainable marketing is that sustainable marketing promotes environmental and socially responsible values. Ethical marketing promotes the brand’s values and morals.

    For that reason, sustainable marketing is a subset of ethical marketing because it’s an example of a brand value.

    So if the brand cares about sustainability and practices that in its marketing, it’s engaging in both ethical and sustainable marketing. This is because sustainability is one of its brand values.

    Here’s an example of what it may look like:

    Infographic showing examples of ethical marketing and sustainable marketing

    As Alice shared with us: “Ethical marketing and sustainable marketing can be symbiotic and thrive when used together. They are both rooted in how the company perceives responsibility.”

    For instance, Singapore-based shoe brand anothersole describes itself as a business that wants to do social good by building sustainable communities. It’s also transparent in how its profits are split:

    Statement from anothersole indicating how the company splits its profits

    Ethical marketing comes with a slew of benefits, including a clear conscience and transparency among customers—which breeds trust.

    From an SEO perspective, you may also stand to benefit through (free!) positive publicity, which may come in the form of backlinks and media mentions.

    We’ll touch on the latter point shortly. For now, let’s take a closer look at some real-life examples of businesses that use ethical marketing and how that has benefited them.

    Earlier, we framed the definition of ethical marketing as two key things:

    • Being honest (not making inflated claims)
    • Practicing full transparency and openness

    In the following examples, we’ll look at how each of these businesses fulfills the above criteria.

    Apple

    Tech major Apple is not without its flaws: For all its environmental efforts and focus on transparency, it has got just as much flak for some of its opaque practices. Still, we thought to include it solely for its commitment to sustainability.

    Let’s start by looking at its dedicated page on ethics and compliance:

    Apple's "Ethics and Compliance" statement

    Its business conduct policy is the same and framed around Apple’s guiding principles of honesty, respect, confidentiality, and compliance.

    List of Apple's principles

    In this blog post, we’ll hone in on Apple’s emphasis on honesty—which most closely reflects what ethical marketing is about, i.e., transparency and open communication.

    Let’s take a look at its Environment page. Here, you’ll see specific examples of how its products are made sustainably, complete with clean copy and explainer graphics.

    Picture of iPhone with explainer graphics about how Apple ensures the phone is built sustainably

    While we can’t verify the authenticity of Apple’s claims on how its phones are made or recycled, the tech brand is widely trusted—and its transparency in this regard only adds to its credibility.

    Here’s a look at the number of backlinks and referring domains to Apple’s Environment page for the words “apple sustainability” (via Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer).

    SERP overview for "apple sustainability"

    We’ll be honest: Ethical marketing can sometimes serve as good PR, especially if your business is doing something unique (and practicing what it preaches). Over time, you may even acquire quality backlinks, boosting your website’s authority and positive sentiments surrounding your brand.

    Ahrefs

    At Ahrefs, ethical marketing is put into practice quite differently from Apple—and that’s why we decided to include ourselves in this list.

    Here’s what it looks like:

    Telling it like it is

    We show exactly how our toolset can help you achieve certain goals through blog posts, YouTube videos, quick product update videos, and more.

    Take this video on link building tools, in which we recommended the likes of Google Search, Ahrefs, Hunter.io, NeverBounce, Pitchbox, and Screaming Frog SEO Spider:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-o5te5lt0w

    The tl;dr is that we never oversell the utility of our toolset. Instead, we educate users on how to complement their use of Ahrefs with other tools.

    Maintaining user privacy

    We’ve spoken about this at length before, and we’ll say it again: Ahrefs doesn’t use cookies or tracking unless absolutely necessary. We also avoid retargeting campaigns in our marketing efforts simply because we don’t believe in it—which goes back to our business’s ethics.

    It’s also why we’re in the midst of building an alternative search engine: to reward content creators through a transparent 90/10 profit model.

    Giving back

    Ethical marketing also happens when a business gives back and explains how exactly it plans to do so.

    In a show of support for Ukraine, Ahrefs’ founder, Dmytro Gerasymenko, made the call to launch a donation-matching initiative, which was displayed on users’ dashboards for several months. For any amount a customer donated to an approved charity in Ukraine, we extended their subscription for double of that.

    This resonated with many subscribers and won us organic mentions on platforms like Twitter, as well as media mentions—even though it certainly hadn’t been the aim of our donation-matching campaign.

    Patagonia 

    Outdoor clothing label Patagonia’s mission statement is simple:

    We’re in business to save our home planet.

    It sounds like a sweeping statement, but the brand walks the talk by acting on its four core values.

    Patagonia's four core values plus short write-ups to explain each

    While these values seem to be shaped primarily around sustainable marketing, let’s not forget the latter is a type of ethical marketing. An example of Patagonia’s focus on transparency and open communication can be seen in its Black Friday 2021 ad:

    Picture of jacket; above, big words in all caps "Don't buy this jacket"

    The brand ran the ad in The New York Times, gave an announcement explaining its stance on consumerism, and informed customers that all Black Friday sales proceeds would be donated to grassroots organizations working in local communities.

    Excerpt of Patagonia's article

    Did its move stir people and get them talking? By golly, yes. It’s worked on us. Consider the fact that what you’re reading now has earned Patagonia a quality backlink.

    The business even has a self-imposed Earth tax: It dedicates 1% of its profits to nonprofit environmental organizations.

    These efforts are widely cited too—just take a look at its backlink profile in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer.

    Backlinks report results for Patagonia's "activism" page

    Closing thoughts

    Having dissected what ethical marketing is and what its underlying principles are, it’s my hope you’ve gleaned some useful takeaways you can apply to your business.

    Have any further thoughts—or maybe a bone to pick? Shout me on Twitter.

    • Monthly traffic 12
    • Linking websites 56
    • Tweets 15
    Data from Content Explorer