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Balancing Marketing with Social Responsibility

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Every marketing decision a company makes, no matter how small, has the potential to impact society or the environment. When a customer who purchases a single jar of peanut butter is rewarded with an absurdly long receipt, commerce battles nature and nature loses.

But can something as innocuous as a store receipt really have potentially global ramifications? Adweek conducted a receipt experiment and the results were quite revealing. They found that, in addition to the usual stuff like date and amount paid, the typical Kmart receipt contained all of the following extras:

  • A pitch for frequent shopper (i.e., rewards points, rewards earned)
  • A pitch to take a survey
  • A pitch for a sweepstakes
  • An offer unrelated to merchandise purchased
  • A physical coupon
  • Some portion of the above translated in Spanish

The experimenters concluded the shortest possible receipt from Kmart is two feet long. (Picture that foot-long Subway sandwich you had for lunch last week. Then double it. Whoa.)

So what’s the deal with super-long store receipts? You see, for businesses a receipt is more than just a record of a transaction, it’s a marketing piece. With that receipt you can keep communicating with customers even after they’ve left the premises. It’s like your marketing team is literally right in their pocket. It’s advertising gold!

But at what cost? How many trees died so Kmart could be in their customers’ pockets? Social responsibility and ethics can be fraught with indecision. While the rules and boundaries are clear in some areas, other times issues arise that are more complex or subjective.

Doing the right thing

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the term used to describe the initiative taken by companies to do things for the greater good. Being a responsible marketer is merely an extension of CSR. Here are some aspects of ethics and social responsibility to consider in your marketing efforts:

Truthful Communication

This is an easy trap to fall into. Are the words you are using to sell your products/services truthful? Of course you think your product or service is the best, but is that true? Do you have customer case studies, testimonials, and data to back up your claims?

Although it may not seem like a big deal and “everybody does it,” deceiving or misleading your customers through marketing content is unethical. And in today’s hypersocial world, people will be quick to challenge your boastful assertions online for the whole world to see. Stick to the facts and you won’t have to deal with a social media PR nightmare that could go viral and potentially damage your brand beyond repair.

Environmental Impact

Just how sustainable are your company’s products? When your discarded product packaging or shipping material is thrown in a landfill, does it biodegrade? Can you use recycled paper for printed pieces? Do you print more than you need just because you’re enticed by economies-of-scale pricing? Your answers to all of these questions will vary, but acting as a responsible steward for the environment will go a long way with your customers and the planet.

(Even though it’s a good move, eliminating oversized receipts to save trees is only one consideration of CSR. The fact of the matter is, moving from paper to digital isn’t a panacea for saving the environment. Digital has an environmental impact, too.)

Data Collection and Use

This one can be tricky. We live in a data-driven world and consumer data is priceless for marketers. Typically “anonymous” or “non-identifying” metrics, like operating system, browser, and IP address, are recorded when someone visits a site, which is perfectly acceptable. Beyond that, be sure you’re collecting and using data in an ethical way, and be transparent about the tracking you’re doing. Also, while it may be legal to purchase e-mail lists and blast them with messages, the ethics of that are murky. Collecting e-mail addresses the old-fashioned way through individual opt-in may be slow, but it will keep your company’s name off the spammer list.

Go ahead, hug that tree. And maybe a person, too.

Unfortunately, many businesses use the almighty dollar as their sole guiding principle. But you, dear business owner, must be smarter than the average bear. If you aren’t already considering the impact your business has on the world and society at large, I trust you will now start.

(Need some ideas and inspiration beyond marketing? Check out what some companies are doing to make the world a better place.)

Thankfully, the merit of a company’s CSR efforts is becoming a more integral part of consumers’ decision process (though many are skeptical that corporations are taking it seriously enough). CSR is good for the world, and your customers (and future customers) will reward you for it. Which translates to a better bottom line for you anyway. See how that all works out?

Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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