10 Principles for Kind Marketing and Communications in 2019

As a kindness practitioner and communications professional, I think often about whether the materials and messages that I put out into the world follow kind principles.

Any time we take our audiences’ time and attention, we tap into a limited resource, perhaps even more so in a world where every brand wants its customers to engage as well as to buy.

We also have to take a hard look at the attentional environments in which we work. In the three years since I initially thought through principles for kind marketing, serious questions about the social and political impact of media have emerged.

Kind marketing and communications means looking at the modern marketer’s engagement imperative as an ecological problem. We compete for, and ultimately affect, limited resources of emotion and cognition. Prospects and customers have to divide these resources in smaller and smaller slices to accommodate all the demands placed on them by brands and, more important, by their lives.

We also have to consider the channels where we disseminate our messages. In 2019, it’s a genuinely open question whether we can operate ethically and still use channels such as Facebook and Twitter. I just don’t have an answer to that question, although I have stopped using both for my own purposes for now.

If we look with compassion at the cluttered lives most people lead, and the toxic potential of the channels we use, marketing and communications seem inherently unkind, even complicit with destructiveness.

But by following the ten principles below, we can shift to a better way of contributing to the lives of our marketing audiences.

  1. Tell your truth: Before anything else, to practice kind marketing and communications, you must believe in the value of what you are promoting. You cannot compromise on authenticity. If you work in an internal marketing or comms department for a company you don’t believe in, then leave. If you work in an agency, take only the projects that align to your truth. If the product, service, or messages you promote do not increase the well-being of the world and of people in it, allow yourself the courage of moving on. While it may seem scary, it ultimately plays out to your benefit. The income comes back as you make yourself a stronger, truer kindness practitioner. I have left lucrative employers and clients, at the risk of short-term pain, but not once do I look back and regret it.
  2. Seek first to enrich, and only then to engage: The collateral you produce, from a simple tweet to a website, brochure, or video, should bring something more to your audiences than just a call-to-action. Kind marketers and communicators stand behind collateral that genuinely makes lives better. Stir up the audience’s kindness, appeal to their best emotions and selves, entertain them, or educate them. For example, in my recent work with a healthcare company, we directed all of our efforts to help patients focus on wellness. While we do intend to increase business through the use of the services we market, we put wellness first, then create experiences that allow patients to engage more directly in their own healthcare. Only then do we guide them to the care and services they need.
  3. Put empathy first in your plans: All good design thinking begins with activities that focus on empathizing with the customer. Put yourselves in people’s shoes to understand how they use your products and services, and what matters most to them. That empathy should drive your content strategy and marcomm plan. In addition, you can empathize with your audience beyond their role as customers. If one of your audience segments is working single mothers, for example, think mindfully of the pressures on their time and attention before you start making demands on it. Not only does this reflect kindness, but also it increases your chances to connect with them on the basis of something they will need and buy.
  4. Give customers just what they need, and no more: The low cost and relative ease of email marketing offer many temptations to marketers and communicators. Speaking from my own experience, I can think of several companies from whom I’ve made an initial purchase, only to regret giving them my business. Why? I enjoyed the product, but I did not expect multiple emails a day about every promotion and offer they might have. Much better to allow shoppers to opt in, at the time of purchase, and to specify their desired frequency of communication. To give a more positive example, one of my favorite online apparel companies sends me a discount or free shipping promotion along with anything they ship to me. I only see the one promotion, at the moment when I am opening a package and I am most excited about being their customer. That’s kind AND smart.
  5. Release only the best collateral: We all work within limited budgets, but we can create quality collateral even at low cost when we drive ourselves to produce the best. When cost matters, dozens of sites now exist where we can acquire good stock photography, video, or audio. We can hire professional voice or on-camera talent for individual jobs. We can always make sure that our copy does not contain grammatical errors, logical errors, or inelegant style. When cost matters less, we can really push ourselves to meet the standards of an artist rather than a hack. Neither style nor substance depends on budgeting, if you put the full force of your commitment to quality to the collateral that you release into the world.
  6. Open a dialogue: You may not directly interact with your audience, but kind marketers always find ways to treat marketing as a conversation. Tactics can include well-known tools such as Voice of the Customer surveys, focus groups, or Net Promoter. But tools alone may not suffice. As a marketer, you can make a mental shift by treating everything you do as part of the possible conversation between yourself, your product, and your audiences. You can listen to the way your friends and family talk about similar products, or how they react to various ads and promotions. You can watch what people do on social media, even how they move through stores, interact with products, and make buying decisions. As a kind marketer, you find the entire world becoming part of your conversation.
  7. Work with others: Going it alone can result in unfortunate missteps. I know this from my own experiences at the beginning of my career. It only takes a few sessions with product teams or with end consumers to realize that you do no one any favors by talking over their heads or speaking in an essentially private language. I also vividly remember, when in the role of a creative director, I had to break the bad news to a web designer. “Those are swastikas,” I pointed out. Having creative talent may feel that talent gives us permission to go rogue, but we ultimately must remember that we don’t see our own blind spots. A team of trusted colleagues and stakeholders helps us make the shift from arrogance, or even offensiveness, to kindness.
  8. Own what you produce: Even as part of an extended team of peers, stakeholders, customers, the more you connect with the products and services you promote, and the more you take ownership of the work you do, the more you can imbue them with your own deepest commitments to the world at large, including kindness. When I speak about ownership, I mean the feeling of finding and committing to what matters most, rather than keeping things to yourself. That feeling keeps you from slipping into alienation, where you begin to make compromises because “it’s ‘just’ my job,” or “it’s ‘just’ the client.” Alienation, in turn, leads through inauthenticity even as far as to lies and ethical lapses. When you remain mindful that “I am doing this” and “I am saying this,” even though it’s on behalf of something else, you escape that negative loop and enter a positive loop of kindness instead.
  9. Promote sane consumption: As marcomm professionals, we don’t do our work in isolation. We operate against a background of constant consumerism, where brands push people to seek “bigger, better, and more.” Marketers can go a long way by triggering acquisitiveness and status anxiety, but that long way is the wrong way. “The overall effect of advertising is to stimulate the craving for consumption,” as Erich Fromm describes it in his masterful To Have or To Be (essential reading for kind marketers with a philosophical bent). In a world of limited natural resources and in the face of a distressed environment, we can focus our messaging on giving people choices to actualize themselves and increase their well-being, rather than buying and wasting more. For example, in the case of an educational product, rather than focusing on the anxieties of potential students, we focused on unlocking potential and on long-term life outcomes, with much better results than a fear-and-doubt based consumerism.
  10. Improve the world: Finally, without inflating the importance of marketing or communication in the grand scheme of things, we still must realize that what we do pervades almost everything in the modern world. Researchers place the number of brand exposures we experience each day in the thousands (including not just commercial but ambient messaging in the streets, on store shelves, online, etc.). By acting as kindness practitioners, by reflecting that kindness in the content of the collateral we put into this mix of constant brand exposures, and by actively fostering the connection between what we promote and our customers’ richer, more deeply engaged and compassionate lives, we can change the underlying tone of this branded economic environment. We can do this with the images we choose, the attributes we highlight, the channels we select, and the stories we tell or ask others to tell about our brands. While our work still focuses on the immediate choice of our product or service within the marketplace, it can also focus on the broader choice of how people consume and how they choose to be in the world, and that focus becomes the ultimate kindness we have to offer to those whose attention we call upon.

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