Debbie Ekins

Debbie Ekins

Is it ethical to continue marketing during Coronavirus?

It goes back to the early noughties!  I can’t remember the exact date because I was a child and exact dates didn’t mean much. But you’ll probably remember it, there were petrol shortages across the country. 

In the village I grew up in there was a small, independent petrol station. It was one of the last petrol stations in the area to have petrol. And what did they owner do? They put their prices up. And not just a little. They more than doubled the price. 

Everybody needed petrol, so there was MASSIVE queues around the village. People waited for (what seemed like) hours for petrol. And they paid what they needed to.

BUT…what happened once the strike was over? People remembered. Post shortage, the garage was dead. It was almost like there was an unwritten agreement among everyone in the village that nobody would use them again, even if it meant travelling further to get your petrol. 

I remember asking my Mum why. She said: 

“They took advantage when people were in need. And now people remember and don’t want to give them money”.

Shortly after, the petrol station closed down. 

So, what’s my point?

Things are a little bit crazy just now. Sure, we are slowly coming out of lockdown and things are getting back to “normal”. But, for most businesses, times are still a little tough, and the future still seems scarily uncertain. People are worried about their homes, jobs and businesses. But at the same time, the world must go on. People still have bills to pay, and mouths to feed. So, if you own a business, what do you do?

NO ONE wants to be the petrol station guy. And for a lot of people there IS a worry that if you keep on marketing and selling people will think you are taking advantage. Lots of people are feeling icky about selling (me included, which is why it’s taken me 10 weeks to write this).

So what should you do to make sure your business survives?



What is it not okay to do during a crisis?

So, first things first. What is it not okay to do?

As a business you NEED to make money. Even if you are eligible for government support, the chances are that that alone will not be enough to keep going indefinitely.

In case it wasn’t clear. The opening story was unacceptable behaviour in a crisis. I get it. You have to pay bills, supply and demand and all that jazz. And I’m not an advocate for putting people out of business, but some things are just not okay. And profiteering off the pain of other people is up there with the worst of unethical business practices.

So I shouldn’t really need to say it – but don’t profiteer.

Charge for your products and services – of course – that’s a given.

Raising your prices because you know people NEED it and will pay for it in a panic. All I’ll say on the matter is #DBAD (that’s don’t be a dick for those who don’t know).

That’s not to say you CAN’T raise your prices. If you were planning on because you haven’t been charging enough then I’m 100% behind this. But I’m talking about people like the petrol station in the original story. Or shops that know people are desperate for hand sanitiser so are charging £10 instead of the usual 80p.

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This kind of behaviour might get you business now when people are desperate. But it will quickly get you out of business as soon as it’s all over. 

People remember!

I’ve seen people on Twitter keeping a record of businesses that are treating staff and customers badly. We live in a hyper vigilant world, where people are quick to jump on the cancel culture bandwagon. So I have no doubt a few businesses that tried to take advantage will not come out of this pandemic swinging.

The general rule of thumb should be – avoid icky marketing tactics (this is actually a rule of thumb always).

Get half price teeth whitening kit. Enter COVID19 at checkout.

Ew! No. Just no! I’m not saying promotions or offers are wrong. They might work in your industry. But stop trying to sell more with a discount code. Especially if the checkout code plays on the fears of people.

And while we are on the subject of fear. Don’t use fear based marketing. I don’t like it. I don’t rate it. And I’m fairly certain there are studies out there that say it doesn’t work (No, I’m not going to look for them it’s not the point of this article – but i’m sure for most things it doesn’t work).

So let’s round up those no’s go’s:

1. No profiteering (keep your prices the same – unless you were planning on putting them up)

2. No icky discount codes

3. No fear based marketing 

Got it. Excellent. Now we can get onto what you can do…


Is it ethical to keep marketing during a crisis?

We know what NOT to do. But what should we do. 

Should we just potter along. Stop marketing. Cross our fingers and hope for the best. 

Sure! Industry dependent, that might work. It might keep you going and you might have a business at the end of this. 

But I don’t know if I would be willing to bet my business on that. Would you?

If you have already been marketing, now is not the time to stop. 

What you do today, will determine the success of your business in 3-6 months time. 

In fact, I’d argue that marketing is even more important today than it was last week. 

Not only do you need to pay and feed yourself. But you might have staff to pay. And they have bills to pay and families to feed. And the money that you and they earn pay for other services and products that in turn allow those people to pay bills and feed families. It’s all part of the continual cashflow we call the economy. And we all have our little part to play in keeping the wheel turning.

I could argue that its unethical to stop marketing. 

I won’t go that far – because I know it’s stressful and you should do what is right for you and your business. But, done right, it’s definitely not unethical to keep marketing your business. 

But doing it right is the crux of this…


Know your why...

In Simon Sinek’s Start With Why TED talk he explores how the most successful companies that manage to connect with their customers on another level have a very strong why. A purpose that drives their company.

What’s yours? 

Why did you start you business?

The chances are that your business solves a need or a problem. The chances also are, that problem or need still exists. 

In fact, I’d bet that there is a very good chance that it exists more acutely that it did a couple of weeks ago. 

So you need to make sure that you give your business the very best chance of getting this product in the hand (literal or figurative) of your ideal company. And marketing is the way to do this. If they don’t know who you are. If they don’t know how you can help, they can’t buy from you. 


The solution to ethical marketing ...

The above ‘What not to do section’ – is titled for a crisis. But really, it’s applicable all the time.

The chances are your business is helpful. You deliver a product or service created around your customer. In some way it fills a need, or solves a problem. Whether or not it feels essential to the running of a country, it serves a purpose. It’s important. But that doesn’t excuse shitty, fear-based marketing and sales tactics. 

Market with empathy. Always.

Market with compassion. Always

Market with the intention of solving the problems of your consumer, of enriching or improving their lives in some way. Not with the intention of making yourself money. 

And don’t pretend. Don’t hide your desire to buy a new range rover under the thinly veiled pretence of being authentic and compassionate. 

It’s obvious! 

We know what you are doing. 

We see you.

Yes, you need to make money. Yes we all know that. No, we don’t mind as long as what you are selling is useful and you are genuine in your efforts to do so. 

Market like this all the time. Not just in times of crisis. Not only is it (in my opinion) the right and ethical way to do business. But it might just get you through this crisis. 


What does ethical marketing look like?

What people really want now (and arguably always) is transparency. They want to know who you are, and how what you are offering is going to solve their problem. They don’t want to be sold to. They want all the information presented so they have the opportunity to make their own decision.

That’s where content can come in. 

Content marketing can help drive real revenue to your business. It can:

  1. Increase your website organic ‘search’ traffic (and turn them into customers)
  2. Build trust and authority with your audience
  3. You own the content on your website
  4. You can overcome the prospective objections and shorten the sales process
But it’s not pushy. It’s not icky. It’s giving people the whole story, and letting them make the final decision for themselves. 

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Examples of businesses marketing and selling in a new way

Lot of businesses have the benefit of being able to operate fully online. Like me! I was #WFH before Coronavirus made it cool. Which, means there is a little less adjustment. But also, a little less Netflix to watch as I’ve already made my way through A LOT of it. 

But, many businesses CAN’T work from home. Of course there are the obvious professions such as Doctors, Nurses, Cleaners, Police and many many more who have to be there in person to complete their jobs.

But there are also a lot of small service businesses that rely of face-to-face contact to make money. Not the ideal situation with social distancing and the impending lockdown. So, what do they do? 

They pivot. 

The one really lovely and dare I say exciting thing (I’m sure it’s not exciting for them – probably very, very stressful) is watching people become innovative. Necessity is the mother of invention and these extreme circumstances are forcing businesses to get creative in order to continue the cash-flow. It might not be a perfect solution in come cases, but it will certainly help them weather the storm, and potentially thrive in it. 

Here are some of my favourite examples

NAF are a Glasgow based nail salon. They, of course, need to be in contact with their customers to make money. Sadly the technological advancements required for virtual pedicures are not quite their yet – they can’t do nails from the comfort of respective homes. So what did they do?

Starting selling accessories that solve a problem.

If people can’t make it into the salon how will they remove their gel nails? NAF salon quickly put together a Soak Off Saviour pack – with instructions and all the items needed to safely take off their nails until the salon was up and running. 

Buy soak off saviour 

Personal training is another industry that has been hit hard. Sure, there has always been online training plans. But most of us need the accountability of showing up in person to really work hard in a training session. So, how do you make money during a lockdown if you are a personal trainer?

Two exercise businesses that have adapted to the new normal are Murray Thompson and Rebel PT. 

Murray has pivoted from in person power yoga, to an online membership offering home training, nutritional advice and the accountability to keep you going. 

Tom and the Rebel PT team had build a really strong community around their outdoor bootcamps in Aberdeen and Edinburgh. People are craving that community spirit more than ever during the lockdown and they have utilised this and have been running regular online bootcamp from the safety of your own home.

While both, I’m sure are looking forward to seeing people face to face again, this has helped add an additional dimension to their business that may continue in life after Corona. 

Marchtown Wine deliveries

Who doesn’t love a glass of wine?

But you know what I love more than wine. Having wine delivered straight to my door. 

Marchtown is an amazing little wine bar in the Southside of Glasgow. They run wine and cheese tastings (which are btw, AH-MAY-zing) and have a walk-in bar. Of course, these have had to stop and they very quickly pivoted to offer timed off-licence collections. They have now added a delivery service, which has quite honestly got me through lockdown. 

A lot of people are buying wine anyway, but this gives locals the option of buying wine from a local, independent business with the added extra of convenience.


I’m sure there are loads of examples of businesses pivoting during these times, I’d love to see some more in the comments. 

But the main take-away is, that now isn’t the time to stop marketing. If anything, it’s the time to ramp it up. 

Whether or not you are eligible for government support, the chances are most businesses are feeeling some sort of Coronavirus impact just now and clever and ethical marketing is the only way to ensure the survival of your business. 

Let me know if you need any help creating content to keep your business moving forward. 

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