Wednesday, May 14, 2008

redefining ethics & morality in marketing? ...hehe

The article below was emailed to the President of the Institute of Marketing Malaysia. Look out for it in the forthcoming issue of their journal/magazine....
Redefining Ethics & Morality in Marketing
(Originally a 2 hour public lecture @Universiti Tun Abdul Razak,UNITAR)
By Khaeruddin Sudharmin

Marketing has been viewed sheepishly and maltifariously by various stakeholders. It is a boon and a bane, an opportunity and a threat, that keep the world economy growing so it seems. It can sometimes be fashionably oxymoronic. Its what Vance Packard once crystallized in his book ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ about mysterious consumer behaviours. With comtemporary and innovative ideas about marketing flooding both business and academic literature, one can get lost in this schidzophrenia. One of the 50 Gurus who have shaped the future of Marketing, Bapak Hermawan Kartajaya, President of the World Marketing Association, has blended the latest marketing trend with a conceptual foundation subltly redefining ethics and morality in marketing at the same time. There has never been a more interesting time now than ever before, for marketers to seize the opportunity to emulate and adopt latest advanced marketing concepts born out of the rapid development in information and technology especially the internet, to confront head-on, todays’ consumer expectations of greater transparency and corporate social responsibility. The writer contends that the fact that there now emerge loud calls for redefinition of ethics & morality in marketing, suggesting that there exist unethical practices that need to be aligned.

Marketing is the management function that identifies, anticipates and satisfy consumer wants at a profit. That was the definition by The Institute of Marketing (UK) way back in 1975 that I grew up with. Over the years I saw plenty of rebranding taking place. During my time it was ‘The World is our market’ And we would be proudly printing it on our white longfellow cheap (sourced from Klang) t-shirt or sometimes printed on the slightly more upmarket t-shirt during those days (the fruit of the loom). That should at least get the more gorgeous girls to even take a second look at us. Then the theme IM well CIM now, changed to Marketing is Business. In those days, and I bet even until today, we have never really convinced the public at large the distinct differences between Sales & Marketing. Although for a long time now attempts had been made to put in place to structure the discipline, putting the framework, policies, attempting to meet theory and practice at some point. And of course the fashionable thing to do is always the unending quest to impress upon would be marketeers, that marketing is strategic and therefore should be at the forefront of business, whatever that might be.

Let us quickly take a look first at wikipedia (the free online dictionary) has to say about the definitions of ethics and morality. Ethics is a major branch of philosophy, encompassing right conduct and good life. It is significantly broader than the common conception of analyzing right and wrong. A central aspect of ethics is "the good life", the life worth living or life that is satisfying, which is held by many philosophers to be more important than moral conduct.

Ethics and morals are respectively akin to theory and practice. Ethics denotes the theory of right action and the greater good, while morals indicate their practice. "Moral" has a dual meaning. The first indicates a person's comprehension of morality and his capacity to put it into practice. In this meaning, the antonym is "amoral", indicating an inability to distinguish between right and wrong. The second denotes the active practice of those values. In this sense, the antonym is "immoral", referring to actions that violate ethical principles. Personal ethics signifies a moral code applicable to individuals, while social ethics means moral theory applied to groups. Social ethics can be synonymous with social and political philosophy, in as much as it is the foundation of a good society or state. Ethics is not limited to specific acts and defined moral codes, but encompasses the whole of moral ideals and behaviors, a person's philosophy of life (or Weltanschauung).

Redefining ethics & morality in marketing is disturbing to me because it suggests and perhaps confirms my long suspicion about the unethical and immoral marketing practices that we may perhaps all have been subjected to. With globalisation, greater access to products and services, consumer awareness and demand for greater transparency, going green, corporate social responsibility and what have you, the whole game has overturned. There is mounting pressure from all sides expecting marketeers to practice higher ethical and moral standards.

Ethics, morality, law, these three things are corelated in a sense. Yes and no. Ethics: what is deem ethical in one state, society, may be unethical in another domain. Some laws allow for what seems unethical practice in another society or tribe. What is morally acceptable in certain societies, culture may be taboo in another. Much like Samuel P Huttington’s Clash of Civilisation sort of! Again, when one talks of morality…by whose standards? One could be accused of playing God or taking upon oneself as a moral police. Ethics and morality issues to me therefore can have dual dimensions. One at the local level where the definitions must comply with local culutre and the other one, which can be addressed concurrently. At the generic universal precept level where what is ethical and moral is universally accepted by everyone globally. It is still a dicey issue, like corruption for example, they are interpreted differently in different societies and nations. But corruption is corruption. Corrupt business (oh well, marketing!) practice will be damaging in the long run.

Earth had become Venus so says Bapak Hermawan Kartajaya. He goes on to propagate the idea that the advancement of information technology, instead of turning Earth inhabitants to become robot-like, is in contrary turning them into a more holistic human, loaded with emotions and feelings. Earth inhabitants according to him is not turning to be more rational, yet becoming more emotional like Venusians. And I like to add that they have become much more demanding and expect nothing but the best, they want to know what ingedients you use, where did you source them? Were they organically farmed, are they genetically modified? These are serious ethics and morality issues organisations need to deal with the new wave comsumers. When John Gray wrote that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’. He sspoke of the man who travelled from Mars to Venus to find woman. Together they travelled to earth, a planet where conflicts coloured the life of both man and woman. Some of Bapak Hermawan’s guiding principles and models that will be of value to marketeers include: products and services should be an experience; involving customers in the business process; customer insight is the best tool to find out the customers’ hidden needs; viewing the market dynamically, using infinte segmentation; community is the best channel and finally emphathy has a significant contribution in service. To me if you get it right the first time, ethics and morality embedded in your marketing plans right from the beginning rather than an afterthought, then the world is your market!

Fast moving global companies are quick and sensitive to their customer and market needs. We see that most innovative companies begin their vision & mission statement with a commitment to high ethical standards especially to those companies that are expected, always, to observe their own first and foremost code of ethics, examples of which are medicine, pharmaceuticals, professional services, accounting, and of course many more. Even the ancient institution of bultlerdom too have their own sacred code of ethics. Go read the book by Kazuo Ishiguro ‘The Remains of the Day’ and there’s also a movie from Columbia Pictures starring Anthony Hopkins, again, my favourite actor, if you are lazy to read the book. I think it is being screened on ASTRO right now. As I was saying, forward looking global companies constantly re-look at their core businesses. For example these 2 companies, Abbot Laboratories and Pitney Bowes, each company went on to redefine its core and periphery and become a leader in a sector that had once been peripheral to it. Abbot Laboratories; it defined its core as ethical pharmaceuticals but expanded its visions to consider a broad range of products that lower the cost of healthcare. Pitney Bowes. It traditionally define its core as postage meters and mail handling but it expanded its vision to take up a wide range of related back-office market trends.

Perhaps it can be argued that they may just be corporate rebranding or realignment exercises or just a spin-job exercise much like old wine in new bottle or rearranging the same old furniture in the same old room sort of.

Redefining ethics and morality in marketing it seems to me is no longer an option. As consumers ourselves we do experience and look out for companies that does not exhibit ethics and morality in their products services or marketing practices. In a world where choice is abundant, consumers will always look for alternatives or initiate hostile defiance towards your products or services. In today’s real-time online new media, it doesn’t take long to bring any entity down. It spreads like new viral strains in blogosphere and if you don’t have your own corporate blog to defend yourselves, your guess is as good as mine.

The writer, Khaeruddin Sudharmin , MBA (UK), LS7037, Fellow PWI (UK), is Managing Director & Chief Executive Motordata Research Consortium (MRC) Malaysia in partnership with THATCHAM UK, concurrently also Group Corporate Secretary HeiTech Padu Berhad, was a keynote speaker at IBIS2006 Global Forum, Montreaux, Switzerland, columnist for Sydney-based industry journal BodyshopNewsAsia and President of the University of Hull Alumni Association in Malaysia 2008/2009.

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