Integrity in Marketing Is Not Optional

Why Truth and Credibility Must Necessarily Guide Marketing Strategy in an Era of Informed Skepticism

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While marketers grapple with the usual challenges -- competition, accountability, wrangling new technologies -- perhaps they should be more concerned with a far more powerful phenomenon: informed skepticism. In a world where buyers are continuously in touch with other buyers and claims are publicly deconstructed by anyone and everyone, marketers' toughest job may be to simply convince buyers that they speak the truth. In such a world, marketing integrity is not just a virtue; it is a driver of choice.
They speak the truth
The marketers featured on this page get that marketing integrity is more than just a nice-to-have; in today's environment, it's become a must-have for success.
Herman Miller chair
Has turned down multi-million-dollar deals rather than compromise beliefs.

A couple of years ago, the word "integrity" was the most researched term in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Last year, more than 75% of Opinion Research respondents said they preferred to buy from a company that operates ethically, even if they have to pay more. About the same time, an Edelman study found business opinion leaders believe a loss of trust because of ethical misbehavior has a highly damaging impact on customer behavior.

Yet despite many such findings and the spate of corporate executives fined and/or jailed for deceiving the public in recent years, only half of 1,800 communications professionals in a recent survey agreed that discussion of ethical/unethical conduct is encouraged in their organizations.

Fed up consumers
Perhaps the other half of companies will come to their senses when they realize buyers are fed up with marketers behaving badly, and that integrity has become a cause célèbre wrapped around a ticking time bomb. Those marketers that continue to stretch the truth just because they can may cause far more damage to their revenues and reputations than any competitor or industry slowdown. Some recent examples: Various governmental agencies have reportedly fined the pharmaceutical industry in excess of $3 billion in the past few years because of allegedly misleading marketing and sales practices.

A leading medical-device company admitted not long ago to failing to inform doctors about a potentially fatal flaw in their aggressively marketed heart defibrillators. The company's stock price plummeted and the firm was eventually sold and rebranded.
Kiehl's moisturizer
Despite ownership by L'Oreal, still does most marketing via word-of-mouth and sampling.

A major video-rental chain ran a promotion that claimed to eliminate late fees, but failed to mention that renters were very likely to end up buying the video if they held on to it for a brief period. The company was accused of misleading marketing by 47 states and ended up paying a fine of $670,000, not to mention suffering through an avalanche of negative publicity.

A leading retailer is said to have surreptitiously paid professional bloggers to take their side in a series of blogs where the company had come under fire for allegedly questionable hiring and workplace violations. The PR fire that was already burning bright was fueled still higher.

Getting bloggers onboard
More than one "buzz-management" firm has paid or otherwise provided incentives to young people for persuading their friends to try client products. All very legal, but they reportedly do so without insisting their agents disclose to friends that a firm is encouraging them to push the products, which clearly violates a tenet of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association Code of Ethics.
Trader Joe's biscotti
Vaunted employee panels test out everything sold and reject anything that falls short of promises made.

Are all of these firms and industries legally guilty of crimes and misdemeanors? It may not matter, because perception is never more lifelike than in marketing. All of the achievements that such organizations are rightly proud of are instantly overshadowed when overzealous marketers and salespeople step over the line.

In too many marketing departments, integrity is essentially a backdrop to daily work rather than a prerequisite, an admirable trait that sits framed on a plaque instead of a necessary skill set that is integrated into marketing plans.

Putting it into practice
In fact, integrity could not be more practical. It has proved to be an extraordinary competitive advantage when it is exercised throughout marketing planning and execution. This practice can be found in the product marketing and communications programs of such business-to-business and consumer standouts as Herman Miller furniture and offices systems, Kiehl's beauty care shops, the Infosys IT firm, Patagonia outdoor apparel, Johnson & Johnson health care, W.L. Gore industrial products, and Trader Joe's grocery stores, among others.

Wondering if your own marketing programs operate with integrity? Consider the following questions:
  • Do you essentially consider your customers to be sources of revenue or equitable partners who are treated with the same integrity that you expect when you are the buyer?

  • Are you selling products or services that you can guarantee in the same way that you would give your personal word to a close friend? Is your product simply meeting the specs you established, but falling short of a product performance that you would stake your personal reputation on?

  • Are you focused on building your share of credibility?

  • Are your marketing communications technically legal but inherently misleading? Legislation lags behind the marketplace, which means there will always be opportunities to see what you can get away with. That may buy some companies more time to bob and weave, but wary consumers ultimately will reject their fancy footwork.

  • Are you shooting your brand in the foot by relentlessly invading your customers' privacy? In a Yankelovich study, nearly seven in 10 Americans said they are interested in products that can block advertising, and more than half said they resist products whose marketing tends to overwhelm them. Marketing with integrity includes respecting the buyers' right of privacy. Bludgeoning them relentlessly with marketing messages is wasting money.
    Johnson and Johnson baby shampoo
    Management expects absolute integrity from its people or they find another place to work.

  • Have you established a metrics system that tracks and evaluates whether your company is perceived as marketing with integrity? Do you know how much your customers and prospects value integrity and how well you have lived up to their expectations? Do you know how credible your claims are compared to your competitors,' and could that credibility be enhanced with a stronger emphasis on full-disclosure marketing? In short, have you calculated a new kind of ROI -- your "return on integrity?"
These questions can best be answered with systematic strategies that are part of a marketing plan's bone structure, leading to more customer loyalty and greater growth opportunities.

I just wrote a book about marketing integrity. About the time the book was being printed, an FTC lawsuit revealed that John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, had been posting criticism of his company's competitor and would-be acquisition on a website using a pseudonym. Mr. Mackey is now being investigated by the SEC and his own board, and some organic-food buyers are likely reconsidering their shopping habits.

All of this is exactly what my book is about. Except that on page 15 I praise Mr. Mackey as one of the world's most forthright food purveyors.

It was once considered naive to believe that integrity was even relevant to marketing effectiveness. Soon, it will be considered a key reason to buy, if not a price of entry. When that happens, the companies that have a systematic approach to marketing integrity will hold a significant advantage over those that fail to treat honesty as the new driver of choice.
Lynn Upshaw is a marketing consultant and a member of the faculty at the Haas School of Business at UC-Berkeley. His latest book is "Truth: The New Rules for Marketing in a Skeptical World" (Amacom).
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