What Exactly is Responsible Marketing?

And what should we do about it as communicators?

By Kasia Reterska

You’ve probably heard of the term “social impact”. You might have even heard of the terms ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). And maybe you’ve heard of the term “inclusive marketing”. But what about “responsible marketing”? What is Responsible Marketing — and is it any different from just trying to market in responsible ways?

Three agencies from across The Weber Shandwick Collective (TWSC) came together at the beginning of 2023 for a 10-week assignment to tackle this exact question for a new consumer health client: What is “Responsible Marketing” and how should we consider applying it in our business?

To find the answer, the team not only learned the ins and outs of Responsible Marketing, but it also learned how to use its principles as social impact communicators.

This article explores the key tenets of Responsible Marketing, how purpose-driven communicators and brands can apply them and the inspiring work that ensues when we use individuals’ expertise to their fullest.

What we learned:

We conducted internal audits and stakeholder interviews, external and brand audits, trends analyses and research about the current understanding of Responsible Marketing in business today to uncover key findings.

No singular definition for Responsible Marketing exists in communications and marketing.

While you might assume that Responsible Marketing means “marketing in a responsible way” (e.g., not selling certain products to kids or making sure your marketing collateral looks like the community you’re selling to), that is not always how the definition is used.

Responsible Marketing is just one term among many currently being used across brands and companies — all to convey some element of socially impactful communications. In our competitor and media analysis, we found that organizations are using all the following terms interchangeably: “socially responsible marketing”, “ethical marketing”, “inclusive marketing”, “sustainable marketing” and “corporate social responsibility”.

But by mixing and matching these terms, we are actually conflating a lot of different subjects. That being said, standing for specific social issues — body inclusivity, accessibility, gender and sexual orientation equity — and ensuring that those issue areas are represented throughout a company’s marketing efforts is part of Responsible Marketing.

No singular best practice across the industry.

Beyond this, there is also a lack of best practices across the industry. While several companies have endeavored to build learning and development curriculum around Responsible Marketing, there is no one best practice. Should you be looking to implement your own Responsible Marketing frameworks, though, inspiration can be taken from how other companies have approached learning and development on specific topics and more broadly.

However, early adopter companies do exist: several companies have published codes or principles and policies to articulate their approach and expectations — and in some cases, establish employees’ and partners’ accountability — about Responsible Marketing practices.

Implications for communicators

In digesting these findings, it’s clear that a deep understanding of Responsible Marketing should not be considered a standalone activity — it should be embedded within all company marketing materials. This will help to advance any company’s commitment to being a purpose-led business — in part, because it will end up conducting its marketing practices responsibly.

To ensure you are using the principles of Responsible Marketing — in your own corporate business or for your clients — make sure you:

  • Define: Clearly articulate what Responsible Marketing means to your business or to the client, ensuring big-picture connectivity to the business and beyond.
  • Embed: Create a stronger marketing code and enforce it through ways of working, with
    policy and training requirements and through critical metrics.
  • Elevate: Leverage existing partnerships and other opportunities to build reputation and impact aligned to the company’s social impact and ESG goals.

The more we can all be clear about what we mean by “Responsible Marketing”, the more we can ensure that we advance inclusive and impactful practices that connect to the expectations and needs of increasingly diverse and purpose-driven consumers.

Co-authored by Kasia Reterska and Sarah Fogel

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