The Ethics of Branding: How Far is Too Far?

Bibiana Obahor
August 29, 2023
The ethics surrounding branding are a multifaceted subject that demands careful consideration. Determining the boundaries of ethical branding practices can be influenced by factors such as cultural norms, societal values, and individual perspectives. Various aspects of branding have raised ethical concerns, warranting a closer examination. The following points shed light on key considerations:

Ethical considerations in branding have become increasingly important in today's consumer-driven world. The boundaries of ethical branding practices are influenced by cultural norms, societal values, and individual perspectives. As we delve into the subject, it becomes evident that several aspects of branding have raised ethical concerns, prompting the need for closer examination.


Truthfulness and transparency

One of the primary ethical principles in branding is truthfulness and transparency. Brands must prioritise honesty in their messaging and ensure that any claims they make about their products or services are accurate and supported by evidence. Presenting misleading or false information through advertising is widely regarded as unethical and can erode consumer trust.

For instance, in response to criticism of unethical practises throughout the manufacturing process, such as sweatshop conditions in the factories their clothes are made in and the fact that clothes are filling up landfills, H&M pledged to make changes to their supply chain and manufacturing process to reduce the harm they do to vulnerable people and the environment. However, this development was not well received over time.


A H&M Conscious collection pop-up shop in 2015


H&M faced criticism for its slow response to labour and environmental issues, and there were concerns that the company's sustainability efforts were more focused on boosting its brand than affecting meaningful change. H&M was charged with "greenwashing" techniques, in which companies present themselves as environmentally friendly or socially responsible without genuinely implementing sustainable practises.

Manipulation and psychological tactics

Another contentious issue revolves around manipulation and psychological tactics in branding. While persuasion is a natural element of marketing, crossing the line into manipulation raises ethical red flags. Some branding strategies leverage cognitive biases, create artificial scarcity, or employ emotional appeals to sway consumer behaviour. These tactics may lead consumers to make choices they wouldn't have otherwise made, raising concerns about informed consent.

A classic example is the use of "limited-time offers" or "one-time deals" to create artificial scarcity and push consumers into making quick decisions. Such tactics may exploit the fear of missing out (FOMO) and pressure consumers into making purchases without thorough consideration.

Exploitation and cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is another area where brands must tread carefully. Incorporating cultural symbols, practises, or traditions without proper understanding or respect for their context can be seen as exploitative and unethical. Brands must be mindful of the cultural significance of their actions and avoid commodifying sacred or culturally significant imagery for commercial gain.

Gucci faced significant backlash for cultural appropriation in 2019, not just once, but twice. The first incident occurred in February when the luxury designer house released a balaclava-style sweater as part of its fall 2018 ready-to-wear collection. The sweater covered the lower half of the face, leaving only the eyes exposed, and featured a design that included a cutout for the mouth outlined in red. Many people were quick to point out that the design strongly resembled blackface, a deeply offensive and racist practice historically used to caricature and mock Black people.


Gucci fall 2018


One notable critic of the brand's design was Dapper Dan, a renowned Harlem-based designer and longtime collaborator with Gucci. He took to his Twitter account to express his disappointment, calling out the fashion house for its lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity.



This example highlights how the use of culturally sensitive designs and imagery in fashion can lead to unintended consequences. It also underscores the importance of cultural awareness, diversity, and inclusivity in the fashion industry to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes and engaging in practices that offend and marginalise specific communities. Brands must be vigilant in their branding practices and engage in meaningful dialogue with diverse stakeholders to foster a more inclusive and responsible fashion landscape.

Privacy and data collection

Within the digital age, privacy and data collection have also emerged as ethical challenges in branding. Brands collect vast amounts of consumer data for personalised marketing, but ethical concerns arise when companies fail to obtain proper consent, misuse or sell personal data without permission, or engage in intrusive practices that compromise individuals' privacy.


Mark Zuckerberg testifies before on Capitol Hill in 2018 following the privacy scandal


One prominent example of a data breach involving a social media platform is the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica scandal in early 2018. Cambridge Analytica gained unauthorised access to the personal data of millions of Facebook users through a third-party app, using the data for targeted political advertising and influence campaigns. The incident raised significant concerns about user data privacy and led to calls for stricter regulations on data protection and greater transparency from tech companies. The controversy highlighted the potential consequences of lax data security measures and the misuse of user data by third-party companies, emphasising the need for increased accountability in the digital era.

Social responsibility

Social responsibility is also a crucial consideration in ethical branding. Consumers expect brands to take a stand on social and environmental issues. Unethical branding practices may involve using exploitative labor in developing countries to produce cheap products for the global market. Brands that turn a blind eye to these labor conditions and prioritise profit over the well-being of workers and communities are often criticised for their lack of social responsibility.

Influencer marketing

Brands have the power to influence society and shape consumer behaviour. With this power comes the responsibility to use it ethically. The ethical considerations in branding are not black and white; they often lie in the grey areas, where judgment and critical thinking are necessary.

Influencer marketing has become a popular strategy for brands to reach their target audience. However, ethical concerns arise when influencers promote products without adequately disclosing their financial relationships with brands. Lack of transparency in these cases can deceive consumers, who may assume that the influencer's endorsement is based solely on genuine appreciation for the product.



The "deinfluencing" trend we saw earlier this year addresses this ethical concern in a unique way. Creators who participate in deinfluencing openly criticise and discourage the purchase of certain products, offering alternative, more affordable or sustainable options. By doing so, they aim to be transparent about their preferences and potentially build greater trust with their followers. The movement challenges the traditional influencer practice of promoting products without critical assessment and highlights the importance of authenticity and credibility in the influencer landscape.

While both influencing and deinfluencing videos can drive engagement, they present a paradox. Touting a product and criticising it both serve the creator's interests, and consumers may find themselves swayed by opposing opinions from different influencers. This further underscores the need for greater transparency in influencer-brand relationships so that consumers can make informed decisions based on authentic recommendations rather than potential hidden interests.

In conclusion, the ethics of branding demand careful analysis and evaluation. Truthfulness, transparency, manipulation, cultural appropriation, privacy, and social responsibility are some of the key aspects that require ethical scrutiny. As brands continue to play a significant role in our lives, it is vital for them to reflect on their practices and strive to strike a balance between commercial interests and ethical responsibility. Consumers, too, have a role to play by supporting brands that align with their ethical values and holding companies accountable for their actions. Only by doing so can we ensure that branding remains a force for positive change in the world.

Determining the ethical boundaries of branding necessitates a delicate balance between business interests and ethical considerations. Companies ought to be guided by principles of honesty, transparency, respect, and social responsibility. Additionally, consumers play a pivotal role by remaining informed, exercising critical judgment, and supporting brands that align with their own ethical values.


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