Ethical Marketing: how to avoid being gross in the new normal

In the same way that ‘unprecedented times’ became iconic during the pandemic, as we navigate our way out of lockdowns and embrace life post-pandemic, ‘the new normal’ has become just as routinely uttered. 

I’m sure that we’re all guilty of looking forward to saying how ‘we’re looking forward to getting back to normal, whatever normal means.’ In the UK, it’s become almost a small talk topic, along with the weather, any national sports competition and if you’re going to try to go on holiday this year. 

Even before the last lockdown restrictions were lifted back on 19 July (in the UK), getting back to normal has been heavy on our minds. It’s hopeful, optimistic, and full of vulnerability. We don’t want normal as such; we want to go back to a time before a global pandemic turned our worlds upside down. But this push for normalcy is growing, and it’s powerful, mainly because it’s built on hope. 

And here is where we can avoid being gross and icky with our marketing. It’s a tough one to balance because many of us may have been ravaged financially by the pandemic, so the desire to get back to normal and sell will be strong. However, the temptation to jump on the ‘back to normal’ message should be one that brands approach with caution. 

If you’re not careful, you might end up sending incredibly insensitive messages in the spirit of: lockdown is over, buy this new dress so that you don’t look terrible when you go outside again. 

Your customers desperately want to feel good and like themselves again. As marketers, we should be in tune with finding our customers’ pain points and fixing them with our products and services. But let’s not make it a race to the land of gross marketing with a barrage of ‘normal’ messages to fix them. This feels not only gross and sleazy to me, but it’s a rabbit hole to unethical marketing. 

Let’s make ethical the new normal

When we sell something practical, we’re offering a solution to a largely emotionless problem. You know, glue, ladders, a pair of garden shears. They’re all products that fix a practical problem. 

However, when we’re selling something that fixes or touches on an emotional element, that’s when things will start to get interesting. We’ll stick to brands that we know and love because the brand also represents something. Lamborghini, Tiffany, Lego. These brands themselves mean something emotional too.  

I’m all about human, emotional connections. It’s my whole thing as a copywriter. I write empathically to connect with a brand’s audience and speak to them in a relatable and powerful way. 

As marketers, we should all be skilled at creating emotional connections, speaking to the hearts of our audience, as opposed to their minds.

However, your customer’s hearts are probably traumatised right now. They’re vulnerable. They’re hopeful. They’re sensitive. Over the last year and a half, they’ve ridden a wild rollercoaster. 

So, the most ethical thing that brands can do right now is to continue with the compassionate communications they’ve adopted through the pandemic that isn’t powered by sell, sell, sell. Fight against everything that wants to sell your customers x,y,z and get them back out in the world to show it off. A pair of shoes, a watch or a new kitchen isn’t going to fix the cracks in people’s hearts. And for some customers, it’ll be fine; for some, you’ll be preying on their vulnerability. 

So I just can’t sell anything right now? I have a warehouse full of stock and a spreadsheet of worry

Of course, you can, just with some sensitivity and compassion. 

Since the world turned upside down last March, I’m sure you’ve switched to a gentler message. Opting for a share of voice and brand awareness tact over salesy, hard-sell messaging. 

Many of us have changed our tact, instead of asking: what do my customers want? We’ve been looking for ways we can help and asking: what do my customers need?

Even though restrictions are beginning to lift globally, the last year and a half has been A LOT. Not everyone is ready to ‘get back to normal’. Not everyone is prepared to abandon the measures that have made them feel safe; not everyone is ready to go back to the pub or meet up again. After a financial wringing, not everyone can get back to normal. For many people, there’s a long way to go before they’re going to feel normal again. So, a storm of messaging and ads telling customers that you’re the fix they need post-lockdown probably won’t be received particularly well. 

However, customers know that brands must sell their products and services. They recognise that we need to sell to stay afloat and to keep our businesses alive. This isn’t anything to be embarrassed or ashamed of, and we can’t pretend sales aren’t still significant. Selling isn’t gross or icky or sleazy; it’s the way you convey you packaged up your message that matters. 

With everything to navigate, how do we sell compassionately? 

We’re all going through changes 

A crucial part of marketing is knowing your target audience well. You’ve probably got some customer avatars or segments filled with lots of info that you know about your ideal client. This info will typically be split into two pillars: 

Demographics: age, race, religion, gender, family size, income, education etc. This explains who your customer is. 

Psychographics: attitudes, interests, personality, values, opinions, lifestyle etc. This explains why your customer buys things. 

However, after a massive global event like a pandemic, many of these factors in both areas will probably have seen some shifting. Income could’ve been affected by job losses; values may have changed as lots of us re-evaluated what was important to us in a world that felt unsteady. And obviously, our lifestyles have seen a considerable shift – you know, as most of us had to stay at home. 

What happens when these factors shift, but we don’t re-evaluate our data? These changes have potentially become a pain point, and by poking it, we’re crossing a line into unethical marketing and capitalising on vulnerability. 

So, what should you do now? Look at your audience analysis, consider everything that might have changed and how this may have affected your audience’s feelings and behaviour. Once you have a list of changes, the pain points will become visible, and you’ll have a good idea of how your audience might have been affected. 

It’s ok that you need to sell. You can still sell. Just make sure you’re doing it with consideration and compassion. 

Recommendations for selling post-lockdown

I don’t want to call them rules, but recommendations and guidelines feel like a good fit here. 

Don’t celebrate the end of lockdown 

Just, don’t. Any celebration of lockdown restrictions lifting or ending preys on the hopeful optimism that gets crushed when something changes. Remember the crushing weight of the regulations easing being cancelled last Christmas? We don’t know what’s going to happen. Even though it looks like this is it, and the restrictions have continued to ease over the last month, we just don’t know. 

Plus, like I previously mentioned, not everyone feels safe with the loosening of restrictions. Not everyone is ready to go outside or ‘get back to normal’. Many people will have suffered in various ways due to the pandemic, don’t reduce their pain or suffering to a celebration that lockdown is over now. 

What can you do? 

If your product, offering or brand has nothing to do with Covid-19, just don’t mention it or lockdown at all. 

Not only because of the variety of different feelings on lockdown easing but logistically – restrictions are different around the world; if you’re a global brand, then this messaging won’t be consistent. 

Offer value

Hopefully, you’ve been creating and offering value to your customers and audience through this all anyway, this is an excellent place to continue to sit. Most brands don’t belong in the Covid conversation unless you’re an expert or a scientific leader – so just leave that alone. Posting about Covid whilst uninformed just to be included in the conversation is dangerous at best and incredibly negligent and unethical at worst, especially if you have a large following to distribute that lack of information to. 

What can you do? 

Ask yourself, how can I genuinely help right now? What are my brand’s strengths and offerings that can provide help and support here? 

If you’ve been doing that through lockdown, re-visit to ask yourself how your offering may have changed post-lockdown. 

Collaboration over competition 

This is a biggie for me. I believe there’s enough space in the world for us all to co-exist, and I think it’s so much more fulfilling to choose collaboration and community over competition. Maybe if we did a bit more of it, we’d have fewer billionaires hanging out in space whilst their employees were sleeping in their cars… but that’s just me! 

Anyway, brands that come together during this new phase of the pandemic will increase trust with their audiences. Simultaneously, brands who’ve been communicating sensitively during the pandemic will have spent a lot of effort building trust and awareness during this time. 

Now, it’s time for those brands to think about how they can use that brand power and trust to help bring communities back together. 

What can you do? 

Is there a way to collaborate with another brand to help your local community or general humanity? Do you have a skill gap that another company could fix? Do you have a competitor that you could find a way to work with for the greater good? 

At the risk of just writing this in big, bold letters over and over: focus on your customer and their needs and the value you can offer them. 

So, stay away from poking, pressing or otherwise provoking pandemic pain. Unless you’re offering genuine help, don’t even mention it. Just leave it alone.

Let it scab over, let it heal, let it breathe.

Published by Saloni Chamberlain

Turning words into stories with feeling.

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