Ethical Issues in Branding Strategies

Branding can help you establish a theme and reputation for your business or product, and well-branded items are easily recognized by consumers. But when a branding strategy is unethical -- or is perceived as unethical by consumers -- it can backfire, resulting in significant negative publicity for your business. In some cases, unethical branding can even subject you to a lawsuit.

Trademarks and Copyrights

A trademark offers legal protection to logos and identifying marks, while copyrights afford protection to creative works fixed in a tangible form, such as records, books or movies. When establishing the materials associated with branding your product, check to make sure none of the images you use are copyrighted, and never use someone else's images, movies or writing. Copyright holders don't have to register their items or publish a copyright symbol to be afforded copyright protection, so don't take someone else's item even if you don't think it's copyrighted. Likewise, verify that no one has registered a trademark for the logo or design mark you want to use in branding. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a free trademark search tool you can use to ensure no one else is using the logo you want to use.


While you might consider an over-the-top claim to simply be hyperbole, consumers are more likely to see it as lying. Marketers sometimes brand their products as "the best," "the safest" or "the most scientifically sound," but these claims must be true. Likewise, logos or images that imply a product will do something it won't or that create a brand reputation that is false are prohibited. False advertising is a civil offense, and consumers can sue when advertising is false, misleading or dangerous. The Federal Trade Commission investigates claims of false advertising and may levy fines against companies involved in the practice.

Marketing to Children

Many parents view all marketing toward children as suspect because it can alter a child's opinions, viewpoints and self-image. Advertisers should tread carefully when establishing branding strategies and avoid tactics that will be annoying to parents. Offensive images, branding a product as something children can do to annoy their parents or siblings and branding a product as something for problem children can all prove problematic. Misleading branding strategies are also a problem and are often investigated more intensively when they involve children.

The FTC can heavily penalize false marketing to children. Marketers who use sexualized branding tactics -- such as creating a lingerie brand for young girls -- could be slapped with fines and negative publicity. Avoid branding strategies that encourage children to eat unhealthy foods, such as branding a snack as healthy or as a replacement for a wholesome meal. In her book "Can't Buy My Love," advertising expert Jean Kilbourne advises against marketing to children under the age of 8, as they might be unable to critically evaluate marketing claims.

Controversial Branding

Controversial branding strategies can draw attention to your company if they're lighthearted and unoffensive. But when companies cross the line into offensive advertising, they could lose business, incur negative publicity or be sued. Avoid branding strategies that capitalize on stereotypes, racism or sexism, as well as advertisements that encourage or endorse criminal or unethical behavior.

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