October 3

Scott Anderson

Avoiding Impact Washing, Hero Worship and Other Ethical Marketing Pitfalls: A Q&A with Justin Belleme

Impact washing and hero worship: These are two major pitfalls to avoid when it comes to marketing a mission-oriented business. It can be easy to spot extreme examples of either case. For instance, we’ve all rolled our eyes at do-good, eco-friendly messages from oil companies trying to boost their public image after they’ve befouled a region. And it’s common to see exploitative commercials depicting an impoverished village “saved” by a novel innovation delivered by a good-hearted Western entrepreneur. When it comes to marketing, tone matters – so does sensitivity, accuracy and content. There are myriad factors to consider in any campaign and strategy, along with a cornucopia of digital tactics at one’s disposal these days.

So how do impact-focused businesses market what they do without succumbing to these two tendencies? I asked digital marketing expert Justin Belleme about these and other thorny marketing questions in a recent interview. Belleme is the director of strategy at JB Media Group, which he founded in April 2011. Whether you’re familiar with his firm’s name or not, if you’ve attended the Social Capital Markets Conference (SOCAP), chances are that you’ve interacted with them. JB Media has handled SOCAP’s marketing efforts for five years now, and itself is one of the few marketing agencies with a B Corp certification, which it received in 2017. (NOTE: NextBillion is a SOCAP media partner and our readers can take advantage of a registration discount until this Friday, Oct. 4 – use the code MP_NextBillion when registering.)

In addition to SOCAP, the Asheville, NC firm’s clients include Acumen, Ashoka, B Lab and the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN). In addition to marketing and communications, JB Media also provides digital advertising and search engine optimization services, as well as several workshops through its institute.


Scott Anderson: There’s a tendency to think that “good marketing is good marketing.” But, at least in my view, social entrepreneurs and impact investors have a more difficult job when it comes to marketing and branding, given their mission-oriented approach. Why and how do these types of businesses need to approach marketing with a different mindset?

Justin Belleme

Justin Belleme: I don’t necessarily think that marketing impact ventures or investments is “more difficult.” From my perspective, impact ventures have unique opportunities and challenges. Marketing is inherently about creating and projecting an image via messaging and storytelling, to help convince a target audience to take a specific action. 

Marketing is performed through a wide range of strategies, tactics and platforms. All three of these areas have potential ethical pitfalls, even for the well-intentioned marketer. On the strategy side we look at honestly, cultural sensitivity and accurately communicating impact (avoiding impact washing) as key ethical elements. Traditional ventures often create impact initiatives or corporate social responsibility campaigns to create a positive story to tell within their marketing. At times, if this is used to cover up negative social or environmental outcomes in other areas of their business, we call this impact washing. Most impact-focused ventures are designed with a positive outcome at the core of their business model, so are less likely to run into this issue. However, many social entrepreneurs are so close to their impact work that they cannot see the best ways to share their story in ways that will resonate with their target audiences. 

On the tactical side, there are many advertising and marketing techniques that are widely used on the audience building, targeting and list-building side of things that are coming under increasing scrutiny, because of concerns around personal data privacy and transparency. I’ve seen some social ventures who are so focused on reaching their growth and revenue goals, and scaling their impact, that they are willing to do anything to reach their goals – including deploying unethical list building, targeting and advertising strategies. Sometimes going the ethical route takes more time, more patience and more creativity. For a cash-strapped startup or under-resourced nonprofit, it can sometimes be hard to come up with the energy and necessary professional support to identify the right ethical marketing strategy that will build and sustain momentum to help them achieve their mission. 

On the platform side, I feel like many marketers – both hired professionals and the teams at small ventures – have been blind to the level of data collection and sharing going on between the social platforms, the search engines, big tech, internet of things (IOT), and the advertising and consumer data/finance industries. The underbelly of these industries is so complex, while their products and tools are so convenient and easy to use, that it’s very easy to overlook the ethical concerns underlying the business models of these companies. I have been studying this recently, and what I am learning is very concerning. One recent documentary that I watched, called “The Great Hack,” had a quote stating that consumer data recently passed oil as the most valuable commodity in the world, valued at over $1 trillion. New laws and regulations will aim to establish consumer data privacy as a universal human right, however governmental changes will always move more slowly than the evolution of technology and commerce. So I feel like the onus will need to be on the marketers and impact ventures to do their own research to understand where the industry is headed. I feel like it’s an ethical fallacy to have your business or non-profit focused on having a positive impact, while simultaneously marketing using questionable practices on the strategy, tactical or communication platform side.

I realize that I have just brushed the surface of these topics while also sharing a lot of information. To summarize, impact businesses have a unique opportunity to share their core impact work as their primary messaging and storytelling. With an eye towards cultural sensitivity, honestly communicating impact, and a willingness to evaluate the ethics of their tactics and their marketing channels, it is possible for social ventures to establish effective marketing plans that align with their overall values and mission. 


SA: One of the things I know you advise clients on is how to, in the eyes of their customers, make their business into a movement. How is that different from promoting themselves as the hero in their work to fulfill their mission? 

JB: The concept that brands should be looking to create a movement is something that I learned from impact branding and marketing pioneer Simon Mainwaring, New York Times bestselling author of “We First” and founder of We First Branding. In my experience, and from what I have learned talking to Simon and studying his work, brands that are built around something greater than themselves can gain more traction versus brands that are focused on talking about their own products and services. For example, we have been doing the marketing for SOCAP for five years, and I feel that our work is made easier and more effective by the fact that SOCAP is a brand focusing on bringing the impact ecosystem together in creative and interesting ways. The flow of capital toward projects and companies having a positive social and environmental impact is a movement in itself, and SOCAP has effectively positioned itself as not only part of that movement, but a key player in helping to launch and accelerate that movement. 

Brands that offer more traditional products and services are also able to do this. For example, Patagonia has built a movement around environmental conservation, and the positive cultural benefits of low-impact outdoor adventure. TOMS Shoes, one of Simon’s branding clients, helped to establish the “buy one, give one” movement, also known as the one-for-one sales model, where every product purchased leads to the donation of the same product to someone in need. This model has taken off, and the collective impact of all the companies that are now using this model are part of the overall movement that TOMS Shoes helped to create.  


SA: If you market a new car, you can make claims like “this is the most refined vehicle in its segment,” which may or may not be true. But when you market in the social impact space, you’d better be able to back up your claims in terms of social impact. My impression is that – at minimum – both large and small companies need to be investing more in impact assessment, and infusing that data with their marketing materials. What should companies be doing to ensure they’re not impact washing?

JB: To be honest, I am personally not very knowledgeable about impact measurement and management, despite our work with the GIIN, a global impact investing non-profit that is heavily involved with the IRIS impact measurement model. That said, I do know that two keys to ethical marketing are honesty and avoiding impact washing. Both of these topics relate to impact measurement and management, because an organization needs to know the hard numbers about its own impact before it can honestly tell its own impact story. In general, I don’t think that data-heavy content is the most effective for general marketing. However, big statements about impact such as “our work has reduced homelessness in our city by 65%” can go a long way in getting stakeholders excited about that impact. And in order to make statements like the one above, you must be tracking and measuring your impact in a way that is reliable. 

Impact washing comes in two major flavors. One is when companies that are not focused on impact as their core work use impact projects to gloss over their net negative impact. One example would be when a mining company that is not using sustainable overall practices uses an impact project, such as restoring some of the watershed that they damaged, to create a positive PR story. Another example would be when companies whose primary revenue comes from the extraction and sale of fossil fuels spend all of their marketing and PR efforts on highlighting their limited work in the area of renewable energy. 

The second type of impact washing comes when social ventures exaggerate their impact, or cherry pick positive outcomes for storytelling that are outliers or one-off examples that are not representative of their overall work, in order to attract customers or investors. This second type of impact washing is what can be mitigated by the proper use of impact measurement and management practices. 


SA: When it comes to digital marketing and the privacy concerns that go with it, we’re seeing a lot more scrutiny from lawmakers, particularly in Europe but also in the U.S. What do impact businesses and investors need to be thinking about in this context?

JB: This is a great question. In my opinion, most well-intentioned impact entrepreneurs and their internal marketing teams are overlooking a few key ethical issues when it comes to the platforms, audience targeting, and analytics of digital marketing and advertising. This issue starts with the lack of transparency and general secrecy around how much data companies like Facebook, Google and other social and search platforms gather and use within their advertising platforms. These tools offer a lot of convenience and perceived value for both users and marketing professionals, so I feel that the majority of both users and marketers have conveniently turned a blind eye to the underlying ethical issues that these platforms and their advertising tools present. But scandals like Cambridge Analytica and the subsequent mainstream media exploration of what actually happened – including full-length films such as The Great Hack on Netflix – have started to surface more information. 

The E.U. has taken action based largely on the role that big data targeting and manipulative digital marketing had on the Brexit vote. In spring/summer of 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect, and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) was passed. These regulations are too complex to explain in this article, however they make an attempt to shift data and privacy rights back in the direction of the consumer. 

I personally feel that as social entrepreneurs, it is our responsibility to align our marketing with our values and to take strides to not only implement strategies that are compliant with these new regulations, but also to speak out about the issue in general, and to stand on the side of consumer data privacy rights. If our core work is to advance human rights, environmental protection, equity, equal access to resources, and other positive impact causes, then I feel like our marketing has to come from a place of the highest standards for ethics, in order to preserve the rights of all of our stakeholders – but especially of our customers and communities of impact. 


SA: You’re managing a workshop at SOCAP this year, and full disclosure, NextBillion is a partner with you on it. Can you run down the program? What can attendees expect to get out of it – and how will it enhance their SOCAP experience, let alone their business?

JB: I am really excited that SOCAP has allowed me to produce a half-day event called the Impact Growth Workshop on Oct. 22. I am grateful that the team at NextBillion will be involved by joining our panel on impact media and communication. It was actually a conversation with your team a few months ago that inspired me to ask the SOCAP team for permission to produce something larger than the single marketing and branding panel at the main event which I have organized for the last two years. 

The Impact Growth Workshop will feature over 20 total speakers and panelists and 10 total sessions covering branding, media, design, marketing strategy and reporting – along with several conversations on the ethical concerns inherent within the audience targeting and analytics of digital marketing. (Learn more about the workshop at SOCAP.) 

At the Impact Growth Workshop, we’re going to help organizations see their story. Through expert-led conversations and exercises, attendees will receive motivation, inspiration and information. You will learn how to uncover your best stories, discover whether or not you are in a position to build a movement around what you’re doing, and build effective branding and digital content marketing that will help you create a greater impact. Please check out the event’s registration page to see the full slate of speakers, session descriptions and more details. (NOTE: NextBillion readers can get a $25 discount on the workshop by registering with the links above.)



Scott Anderson is contributing editor at NextBillion. 


Top image: Justin Belleme (middle/standing) and other members of the JB Media Group team. Image courtesy of the firm. 




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