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8. What role does marketing play in defining an organization's values?

Jeff & Kyle dive into a listener submitted question about what a marketing leader can do when the values of their organization may not align with their own.


(Primarily autogenerated, let us know if you see any errors!)

Kyle: Hello and welcome to unReactive, where we help marketing leaders reclaim their time and sanity by exploring the topics that keep us stuck in a state of reactivity. I’m Kyle Morck and I’m joined as always by my co-host Jeff Reynolds.

Jeff: Well, hello, Mr. Kyle.

Kyle: Hello. So Jeff, today we’ve got a listener submitted question about a very nuanced topic. So I’m really excited to jump into this one with you.

Jeff: Let’s do it.

Kyle: The listener wrote: I work in the life coaching space slash online entrepreneurship space. Sometimes the sales tactics taught and used in this space are not how I would do things based on the value slash ethics I practice.

For example, sell the product or service before you create it. Or using false or manufactured urgency or scarcity, such as limited seats in a webinar course, et cetera. How does a leader verbalize or construct a meaningful conversation versus a battle of right slash wrong tactics? Because there’s always nuance. I don’t think the CEO and I are aligned on this all the time, and I’m not the only one in my circle contemplating or discussing this without the CEO in the room.

Jeff: Yeah, I mean, first of all, isn’t great to have a question from a listener and as much as possible, we’re gonna be focusing on those. What a big topic though, right? Not an easy one to start with.

Kyle: And that’s why I love this topic because it’s not something I would ever probably think to talk about, but it is those real things that marketing leaders are dealing with and struggling with day to day.

Jeff: Absolutely.

Kyle: So I love this question, but nobody listens to this podcast to hear us wax poetic about philosophy.

I don’t think that we can be the arbiters of what is and is not ethical. It’s a very personal topic. Ethics are something that even for yourself, you’re constantly ranking. So it’s hard to say if one thing is ethical or not, cuz in reality you end up doing many things in your day-to-day life that you consider unethical only because you believe it would be more unethical not to do that thing.

Jeff: That’s right. Everything is a relative discussion. I mean I’m certain we could all come up with a basic list. Thou shall not kill of basic ethics that we can all agree on. But when you start applying them to work, it sure seems like it gets really, really personal, really, really fast.

And I guess my disclaimer in this conversation is if a person feels like something is simply not aligned with their belief system their boss, their product you know, their day-to-day work, then at some point it really is just up to you to extract yourself from the situation.

So I think today what we’re gonna talk about a little bit more is, Situations less than I need to quit because I really feel bad about this. And I had a job early college where I was like a telemarketer selling. Basically like discount cards. It was horrible. I mean, I lasted all of like two days and that was an example.

Like I didn’t see that the ethical sort of paradigm that they had set up matched mine in any way, shape or form. And the only answer was for me to leave. We’re not necessarily talking about that. We’re talking about a step, like sort of more common whatever with on the spectrum of reasonable debate ethics.

Kyle: That’s right. And, and I think that what’s really interesting about this topic from a marketing perspective is how it plays into brand, because I think that is definitely not as cut and dry as we would want to believe in terms of, what’s beneficial to a brand, detrimental to a brand when it comes to these ethical topics.

Jeff: also to your customers.

Kyle: Yeah, exactly. So like I, I really see this question as breaking down into two separate topics. One is the ethical choices marketers must make when building a narrative for their product or service. And the second is, how do you have constructive conversation with leadership when you feel like your ethics are not aligned with the company.

Jeff: Yep.

Kyle: So let’s start with the question of ethics and how we build our narratives. In our listener’s question I would really define both of the examples as things that they would consider to be lying. Lying I think is a fairly cut and dry, unethical practice. Like that’s pretty high on the list of things people consider unethical is telling lies and I do think that telling bald face lies is always going to be negative for your brand. If you lie about your products or services, that’s eventually going to catch up to you. Like you might make some short term profits, but you’re not going to be able to sustainably run a company that lies to its customers.

Jeff: Well, of course I agree. Except I guess I’m a little bit confused. The, the two examples were sell the product before it’s created or manufacturing urgency. And I think manufacturing urgency is a little different, but is selling a product or service before you create it a lie?

Kyle: I think that that is how the question asker probably is perceiving it, that it’s making promises that, you know, you may not be able to deliver on or it might not come out the way that you’re expecting it to. Something of that sort.

Jeff: Okay, great. That clarifies my, my thing. I mean, I also do think there’s this other situation, and I don’t really know how to describe this except to say that some organizations, some companies and their customers are sort of all in on the lie, or they sort of ex they understand, you know, that the reality is they’re really not gonna healthily lose that a hundred pounds.

In 20 days, but the customer wants to believe that lie. So I think that’s unethical, but I think it’s unethical not because of lying, but because of basically manipulation, understanding that some people will be, will wanna be in on your lie. Does that make sense?

Kyle: That also brings to mind for me, like multi-level marketing schemes, all of those types of things where everybody’s in kind of a place where you need to believe the lie just to keep your sanity around the topic once you’re already bought into it.

Jeff: Yep. Politics is that way that, that everybody is moving sort of, there’s so much invested in whatever the lies are that we are all just gonna pretend it’s not a lie.

Kyle: That’s right.

Jeff: And we’re not really talking about that either. That’s kind of my my point.

Kyle: Yeah. Cuz What I think is really interesting is that when you look at this as how you craft your narrative for your brand around your products, your services, there’s a big difference between selling a false narrative. So telling a lie. In that case, if you can’t actually help a client lose 20 pounds in 24 hours, or whatever that might be, that’s just lying versus taking control of how you frame a narrative.

And I think that we as marketers need to get a lot more comfortable with that control over framing a narrative

Jeff: I mean, the reality is it’s a big part of the job and, and there’s degrees of that too, but. That in many ways is what marketing is.

Kyle: Yeah, I would say in general, the marketers that I interact with are way further on the not framing their narrative at all spectrum than getting close to being unethical in how they frame that narrative.

Jeff: Yeah, and I think there’s an argument to be made that it’s unethical to do your job wherein you don’t frame the narrative because you’re not helping customers buy.

Kyle: That’s right. And so if we take the example of manufacturing urgency with artificial scarcity. You might be saying that something will only be available for a limited time and never sold again. If you then sell that, again, that’s just lying, but if you follow through, that’s an effective marketing technique.

You’re framing the narrative in the consumer’s mind of this being a rare opportunity, and in marketing it that way, you’re actually making it true.

Jeff: Yeah, but obviously you have to do it. And I, I think you know, that’s a core question when you’re trying to debate in these situations. Is this ethical or not? Is can I be the one to make this true? Can this be true? And I think, you know, that sort of personal agency, as a marketer, we do have control.

We get to make decisions. We’re not bound by forces of nature, you know, that are making us do it. We get to make the choices as to whether or not we make that narrative true.

Kyle: And and the fact of the matter is, is that the way in which a product is marketed can and should change the experience of a product that some of those narrative framing techniques can actually create a better experience for a consumer. So in that example of that artificial scarcity, if someone is purchasing services from a life coach, a sense of urgency can be what gets them to pull the trigger and make a decision. So if you truly believe that the services you’re selling are beneficial, then helping the customer make that decision is useful to them.

Jeff: Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say. It’s actually your job is to help the sale, if you believe that, you know, you’re trying to match the right people with the right products and vice versa then that activity or that framing actually is lubricating that whole process. And there, that’s how, where the value is created.

Kyle: Yeah. And I think that idea of value creation is a really important one that we as marketers can’t forget that so much of value is actually a completely fake made up human concept. Airlines are a really great example of this because every passenger on a plane gets to the same destination.

The core product is the same, but airlines create artificial scarcity through their ticket class system, and that’s not just how they sell those tickets. That’s how they put together the planes, how they arrange the seats, all of those pieces. And how it works out is that first class passengers pay more for the experience, but through marketing, they feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth.

Whether it’s the experience of it being some luxury thing for them, whether it’s the extra leg room, the ability to work, what have you. They’ve bought into this idea of I’m going to pay more and it’s going to be worth it. But likewise, if you’re flying one of those really bare bone economy seats that airlines offer today, you might feel like you are getting a deal, appreciate the ability to feel more frugal in your traveling decisions. Like Jeff, I know that you’re a very big frugal traveler, and that’s something that, you know, marketing helps you feel like you’re doing a good job at that.

Jeff: Yeah, I mean, at a very basic level, it’s this idea that value only even exists at all in the mind of the person making the purchase in the sense of there is no such thing as intrinsic value. Intrinsic value. You know, like we use gold as an example all the time, right? Like gold. The, the people who market gold will tell you all about this intrinsic value as a store of value.

You know, when the societal collapse comes, you’ll always have gold, but you know, turns out if the societal collapse comes your gold may not be the actual medium of exchange because there’ll be no system to exchange that gold. It’s not that actually that practical. We sell the value as one thing to make it sound like it’s intrinsic, but it’s still really about a emotional feeling of security and all those other elements.

Kyle: Yeah, and when you talk about intrinsic value of gold, that gets to the base economics of it is that gold was valuable at one point in time because there was a scarcity of gold because it was hard to get all of that. There is actually not a ton of Inherent practical use to gold. There’s very few uses in technology, things like that where you actually need to use gold.

And now that it’s a much more common element that is easier to mine, the value of gold goes way down

because that’s where values created.

Jeff: Yeah, we have the gold that we’re still getting today and we have all the old gold. A better example is probably even diamonds, right? Because naturally harvested diamonds. You know, meaning mined diamonds are actually becoming less valuable compared to lab grown diamonds.

And that’s an artificial scarcity. So anyway, that, the point is it all is changeable. It all, it is all modified. And the reason it’s all modified is because the value lives in the mind of a person and a person lives within a culture wherein that value is established.

Kyle: Exactly, and we work with a lot of clients in commodity spaces, and we run into another version of this where marketers are really hesitant to narratively frame anything in a unique way because they know that a competitor’s product could make that same statement. But again, that could really be doing a disservice to your customer.

Cuz as long as you’re not lying, framing a feature in a new or unexpected way could actually make a really positive difference for a customer’s experience. Even if you’re selling a commodity product, being able to take a new point of view to it, or frame the benefits in an unexpected way that can really help that customers jobs to be done of why they’re making that purchase. And one example of this that I always think of is products that have never contained gluten adding a gluten free label to their packaging,

Jeff: Very common.

Kyle: and it might not be a meaningful difference, but the consumer feels better about their decision in whatever way that works for them.

Jeff: Yeah, and I think this is an interesting one because I think a lot of people’s mindset is sort of fixed around this, that they feel like they’re doing something unethical by comparing themselves to the competition or simply standing out, you know, sort of that tallest poppy thing gets mowed down.

These are like very deep seated societal challenges and I guess I, I was talking to a marketing director today that we were talking about the pros and cons and even the ethics around pricing customers differently and specifically around, what he described as sort of as best customers getting charged higher than new customers. So like you see this a lot with cell phone promotions, right? So, you know, screw the. longtime customer, but if you’re a new customer, we’re gonna give you a hundred bucks off or whatever, free iPhone. And I mean, I don’t, I, I don’t really see that still as an ethics thing.

I think in a free market, your customer gets to leave if they don’t feel like you’re generating the value for them. So I, I think in some ways there’s almost like a, in some of these ethical questions, and I hope I’m not just rationalizing and I hope somebody calls me out if I am rationalizing.

But there is sort of a, a god complex that kind of happens, like as if your customers aren’t mature adults who can’t make decisions for themselves and therefore, your responsibility is to almost treat them like a child and not differentiate your product. I just think we have to remember that, that this is not happening in a vacuum. We’re not making these decisions enforcing them down our customer’s throats. They can leave and vote with their pocketbook.

Kyle: As long as you’re not a monopoly.

Jeff: Well there, I mean, I definitely think there’s monopoly and there’s also a lot of meta values. You know, like I think once you start manipulating people or you know, I mean marketing is manipulation, but there’s like a level of manipulation or dealing with you know, using negative stereotypes.

Things that do harm to people. I think that’s different than when you’re doing things that are helpful to people.

So I guess that part just all comes down to relative. we’re all on earth here trying to do, do the very best we can. And I think as long as we can point ourselves in a direction where we are not actively harming people, and even better, if we’re actively helping people, then that’s basically all we can ask a few human beings. Cuz if we all, if we all took steps that direction, I think the world would be a a lot more ethical and better place.

Kyle: Yeah, that’s very well said. So I wanna move on to how we can have these conversations within our organization.

The first thing that I would say when it comes to trying to have that discussion about your ethics or values with your leadership, if you feel that they’re misaligned, the biggest question a marketing leader needs to ask themselves before embarking that conversation is, do I believe in the company, the product, the service that we’re offering?

Because number one, if you think that the product you’re selling is a scam, there’s not much you can do in conversation to rectify that. You probably need to be looking for a different role if you wanna find that fulfillment. But if you believe that the product you’re selling can be beneficial to the world, then that likely means that there’s something misaligned in your brand.

And that’s a conversation that not only you can lead, you should lead. As a marketing director.

Jeff: Yeah, I mean, as any leader within the organization, I’m sure I might have even said it on this podcast, but I’m, I’m sure I’ve told you, Kyle, you know, I was never a believer in sort of idea of company values and mission and principles and these things until I started using them. Well, frankly, until I started believing them.

And using them as a management tool -

Kyle: Mm-hmm.

Jeff: to measure folks, to set expectations and have those harder conversations. You know, one of our values, it’s, we call ‘em principles, is serve people, not companies.

Kyle: Right.

Jeff: I think people could argue that, you know, what does that mean?

I mean, if you’re working for Sony, are you working for Sony or you’re working for the marketing director at Sony? And, you know, I think the important point is that we defined it and then we can have a discussion about it. And that, and that’s step one.

Kyle: Yeah, and I, and I think that that goes back to what you were saying before about the internal ethics coming into play a lot more, is that I don’t think that you have any sort of ethical duty to your company, but I do think you have an ethical duty to the people that have entrusted you in your position within the company, the people that hired you, the people that respect you, all of those pieces, that it is about that person to person interactions.

And I think that that’s an important thing to remember in these conversations is that everybody’s coming at this from a different angle. So it’s trying to find that alignment is a nuanced topic when it comes to ethics, because you don’t want to come into it as like, oh, you’re a bad person or anything like that.

So how would you talk about getting into those conversations?

Jeff: I mean, I think the first thing to re to remember is that this is a, mostly a cultural issue. I mean, whether it’s nations or companies or any organization, they have their own sort of set of standards and guidelines and ethics on that spectrum. And we have to recognize that.

And I think that’s sort of what you were getting at is that, it’s not necessarily automatically wrong, especially in the shades of gray areas, it may just be a different value system. And you definitely see that cross culturally. So I think the first thing is to realize that and then really strive to have those discussions openly, you know, about sort of the guidelines.

You know, what are our guidelines? What do we value? How do we approach the challenges when we face them, you know, so I think about it like, when it comes to ethical challenges, what’s our decision making process like that, that’s a question I would ask, and if you’re really concerned about ethics entering into a job, ask that question before you get hired.

You could talk about how do you handle conflicts? What happens when there’s conflicting ideas about a ethical challenge? How do we deal with that? And then, you know, really even more tactically, what is our company’s approach to sustainability, social responsibility, privacy, all these issues that we’re facing.

Companies and departments need to be having these discussions. And then I believe document it in the form of values and principles so that it’s not just a straw man in the clouds, but you know, a real model to follow and debate going forward instead of the wishy washiness, if that makes sense.

Cause I think a lot of times that’s where the problems are coming is that it’s sort of like, yeah, we, of course we wanna do the right thing, but we’ve never defined what the right thing is.

Kyle: Right, and I think that’s also a piece of this for a marketing leader is that you can take the lead in making a case for approaching things in ways that you feel are ethical, in ways that align with your values, that there is revenue to come from that, from the value that that builds with the brand that not only is it the right thing to do, but that you can build a case for, hey, and then we can get in front of these people with this message around this right thing and find, know, a community of people that agree with us.

So in the case of the life coaching, you you could make a case for, Hey, we’re going to be the life coach that sells all of our workshops and classes in this way, and we’re going to make that part of our brand. You can’t just not do these things that work and not replace it with something else that really highlights those values of your company and your brand to make them stand out.

Jeff: Yep. And fundamentally, if that is too shady for you as a marketer, if you can’t come to a resolution, then it may not be the place for you that that cultural organizational values may not be a match. So my argument is that, yeah, the first thing is to try to get clarity around what you’re doing so that you can truly understand those issues.

Just what you said. I mean, do we think the false scarcity is unethical or is it just part of our product launch system? You know the unethical being we’re not actually fulfilling on that claim. And the ethical being no, it’s just a market. It’s just our strategy.

Kyle: And I think the way you can frame the question is, does this serve our customer? Because some things that at face value might feel a little bit sketchy, actually can make a strong case that it’s more beneficial for your customer. But if the answer is no, then that’s something that would make complete sense to move on from and find a different way to do it.

Jeff: Yep. And, and, and that gets to mind my last point, which is so often in these discussions, we try to make them binary. This good, this bad? Yes, no. This sort of thing. And the reality is, if you’re having these discussions and you can create a culture, and I personally wouldn’t want to be part of a culture that can’t have these discussions.

But, then you can lay the options and there’s usually more than one on the table. And then make decisions based outta that pool of options instead of it just being a yes no, good, bad sort of approach.

Kyle: Yeah, there’s a lot of shades of gray in all of these topics, and that’s an important skill set for a marketer to have to be able to approach those shades of gray in ways that you can find and build alignment on.

Jeff: That’s right. But if, if it doesn’t work for you, then I think you gotta have the courage to leave.

Kyle: That’s right. you all for listening today. If you wanna get more content like this directly in your inbox, be sure to sign up for the unReactive newsletter at upMarketer dot io. And thank you very much to the listener that sent in today’s topic. It was a really interesting topic to talk about.

So really glad you sent it in. And if you have any topics you’d like to hear discussed, please reach out to us on our website or social media. We’d love to hear from you.

Jeff: Yeah, and the only thing I’d add there, Kyle, is specifically I think that question might have come in through LinkedIn. We’ve had a few through LinkedIn, so Kyle Morck, Jeff Reynolds, look us up and it’s a good way to get ahold of us.

Kyle: Yeah. That’s great. Well, thank you so much today, Jeff.

Jeff: No, my pleasure. Thanks for leading the way.

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