If marketing professionals seek to conduct business ethically by promoting goods and services beneficial to a customer’s well being, they must first start with truth-based messaging. Regardless of the product or service, if marketers can’t speak honestly when describing features and benefits, then forget about thinking marketers could possibly be ethical, as James Stephenson postulates in his article, “Is Marketing Ethics an Oxymoron?”
Having been a marketer for the past couple of decades, I am quite familiar with the pressure to stretch the truth about product attributes, features or benefits, all in the name of trying to increase sales. My experience in marketing and business communications has been concentrated in the high tech field, including network security and software. With such ambiguous products that are impossible to “touch and feel,” marketing communications tend to fall into broad benefits categories, such as to reduce costs, increase productivity or eliminate potential threats, where the temptation to inflate product benefits definitely exists.
Underlying each of my messages, however, has been a story based in truth. Calculating actual benefits can be tricky. It might be necessary to make assumptions about a prospective buyer’s usage of your product, how your software performs at your client’s company, and so forth. As part of this process, I build a reasonable “story,” backed up by case studies, customer feedback or observations from the field to support my messaging claims.
I am now concerned in the direction of recent corporate marketing communications. A new level of deception now appears to be status quo, as highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “AT&T Relabels Networks as 4G.” AT&T’s marketing department decided they needed a “4G” product to stay competitive, so they decided to simply rename their existing “3G” network as “4G.” Justification was based on comments issued by the International Telecommunications Union, a wireless industry standards body, which indicated that they have not yet set a firm 4G definition. In AT&T’s view, this was a wide open door to apply the 4G term to their “advanced” 3G technologies – look for a future announcement.
This decision goes way beyond a question of ethics, representing an outright deception and lie to prospective customers. Apparently, truth-based messaging is not a requirement at AT&T.
The sad part is that the wireless industry is not acting alone, but is simply following the current direction of the automotive industry.
It used to an accepted truth that automobile model numbers designated meaningful data. For example, Mercedes Benz used to have a strict numbering convention, which made it very easy to understand model and engine size.
If you see a Mercedes Benz SL 55, it denoted an SL body with a 5.5 liter engine. Today, if you buy a SL 63, you get one with a 6.2 liter engine. Rumor has it that the next replacement model will have a 5.5 liter engine, yet be called a SL 63.
I see no truth-based messaging or communications in Mercedes’ decision to change their model number methodology. What I see is deception, which will cause consumers to question the company’s communications, leading to a lack of trust in future messaging.
If you go down the road of deception about product specifications, you are setting yourself up for customer dissatisfaction, opening up an opportunity for your competitors. Your sales team will suffer reduced effectiveness, customer satisfaction will decline and, in the end, brand integrity will suffer. Compounding matters further, the Wall Street bonus philosophy exists here too … those involved in making these messaging decisions will have already been rewarded for their actions with promotions, bonuses or new job offers, prior to when the proverbial “shit” hits the fan.
I propose that a new, higher level of ethics is sorely needed, to be self-imposed by marketing professionals, such that a company’s marketing collateral and business communications can at least be truth-based, rather than outright fabrications. Perhaps I am expecting too much – maybe a better course of action is to institutionalize some sort of “whistle blower” program, such as what the SEC has implemented? Do I sound unreasonable? How far can this messaging strategy continue before the public has had enough? Let me know your thoughts.
Gordon Benzie is a marketing adviser and business plan writer that specializes in preparing and executing upon business plans and marketing strategies. Gordon can be found on Google+.