Ethical Marketing: Definition, Principles, & Examples

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Ethical marketing is when you promote a product, service, or brand in a way that aligns with your values and morals.

In this guide, we’ll explore the principles it encompasses and how you can incorporate them into your business. 

What are the principles of ethical marketing?

This depends on your principles and what you define as ethical—but to get more concrete answers, we spoke with some marketers and ran polls on Ahrefs’ and my personal Twitter accounts.

Here are five common themes that made our list:

Honesty and transparency

Being honest and transparent means not making misleading, inflated, or untrue claims across the whole process: production and delivery of goods and/or services, employment practices, the value proposition of your product, and more.

As marketing consultant Maria Soleil puts it:

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.

It’s 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.

Here’s another definition that resonated with us:

Fairness and respect

This is again subjective. At Ahrefs, our idea of respect involves *not* running ads on our competitors’ names, whether through wordplay or otherwise.

Example of Salesforce running a Google ad on a competitor's name

Rather, we focus on converting prospective users through our educational blog posts, YouTube videos, tweets, and more. 

Maintaining user privacy

This is essentially a subset of the above points: honesty/transparency and fairness/respect.

For instance, Ahrefs doesn’t use cookies or tracking unless necessary. We also avoid retargeting tactics in our marketing campaigns—a reflection of our business ethics.

This also feeds into why we built yep.com, a privacy-first search engine that rewards content creators with 90% of ad revenue.

Here are more questions to ponder, in Jamie Indigo’s words:

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?

Accountability

Open communication and taking ownership of your mistakes are two ways of maintaining accountability.

When fast-fashion behemoth Shein was plagued by accusations of unethical operational practices, the e-commerce company attempted to disprove the rumors by inviting influencers to its factories.

Alas, this backfired—and only amplified Shein’s refusal to take accountability for its actions.

Sustainability

Sustainability means that environmental and socially responsible values are embedded in your business’s products and practices.

Examples of companies that engage in this include Apple, Patagonia, Market Lane Coffee, Marou Chocolate, Freitag, and more.

(We delve into these real-life examples below!) 

Benefits of ethical marketing

Ethical marketing breeds trust among potential customers.

For example, Apple has focused heavily on privacy in its advertising efforts in recent years:

And it seems to be working—if this recent poll by my colleague is any indication.

But “trust” isn’t the only benefit of so-called ethical marketing. It can also lead to positive publicity and backlinks.

According to Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, Apple’s Environment page has backlinks from ~4,400 referring domains (linking websites):

Apple's Environment page has backlinks from 4.4K referring domains, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

If we head to the Backlinks report and dig deeper, we find that many of these are positive mentions of Apple in well-known publications. 

Here’s one from the BBC about Apple’s call to ban hazardous materials from its production lines: 

Backlink from BBC to Apple's Environment page, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

And here’s one from an op-ed piece in The New York Times about climate change: 

Backlink from NY Times to Apple's Environment page, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Bottom line? Regardless of what you think about Apple (it’s drawn flak for some of its opaque practices in recent years), its commitment to ethical marketing has built consumer trust—an immensely valuable asset in such competitive markets.

More examples of ethical marketing

To give you a more well-rounded overview of what ethical marketing encompasses in practice, here are four more real-life examples. 

Ahrefs

Ethical marketing at Ahrefs looks a little different than Apple’s:

We tell it like it is

We never oversell the utility of our toolset. 

If it meant forcing a product pitch into our content, we’d rather not include it at all.
 

Example of how we remove forced product pitches from our blog posts in the drafting stage

Giving back

In 2022, Ahrefs’ founder Dmytro Gerasymenko launched a donation-matching initiative in a show of support for Ukraine. For any amount an Ahrefs 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.

While we’re humblebragging, we also funneled $200K into sponsoring podcasts, newsletters, videos, and more in December 2021. The move generated lots of positive publicity:

Marou Chocolate

Another tasty addition to the list is one of Asia’s most well-loved bean-to-bar brands: Marou Chocolate. 

The Vietnamese-based company maintains a close eye over the entire chocolate-making process, from working with Vietnamese cacao farmers through to overseeing the production line.

Such is its dedication that it publishes detailed reports on its sourcing process, how it supports small cacao producers, and more.

Table about cacao sourcing

If this isn’t transparency, we don’t know what is. Have a read—it’s fascinating stuff.

Patagonia 

Outdoor clothing label Patagonia’s mission statement is simple:

We’re in business to save our home planet. 

Sounds unrealistic? In fact, the brand is well regarded for keeping true to its words and is a solid example of how sustainability is embedded in ethical marketing.

Patagonia ad with the words "Don't buy this jacket"

The brand also donates 1% of its profits to nonprofit environmental organizations under its self-imposed Earth tax.

These efforts are widely cited too. Check out its backlink profile in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer:

Backlinks to Patagonia's Activism page, via Ahrefs' Site Explorer

Market Lane Coffee

How could my personal favorite not make the list?

Market Lane Coffee is an Australia-based specialty coffee roaster and retailer, and I’ve always been a fan of its commitment to fairness, transparency, and sustainability.

It has dedicated pages on how these values are put to practice. Wordy as these are, it gives you a better sense of how it’s walking the talk:

Market Lane Coffee's explanation on how it practices its values

That rounds things up!

Ethical marketing is such a complex topic that condensing things proved to be a challenge, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter

What is ethical marketing?

Ethical marketing is when you promote a product, service, or brand in a way that aligns with your values and morals. This means not making inflated claims, practicing transparency and openness, and more.

What are the principles of ethical marketing?

The five key principles of ethical marketing are honesty and transparency, fairness and respect, maintaining user privacy, accountability, and sustainability. It can involve other principles too, depending on what you define as ethical.

What’s the difference between ethical and sustainable marketing?

The difference between ethical marketing and sustainable marketing is that ethical marketing promotes a brand’s values and morals, while sustainable marketing promotes environmental and socially responsible values. 

Is sustainable marketing the same as ethical marketing?

No, it isn’t. Ethical marketing promotes a brand’s values and morals, while sustainability is an example of a brand value. Therefore, it is a subset of ethical marketing.

Simple visual showing sustainability as a subset of ethical marketing



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