Episode 019

Marketing with integrity and the fight to break the consumerism cycle

Have you ever used a marketing or sales tactic that left you feeling a little (or very) slimy after the fact?

Alice Karolina Smith definitely has. And in today’s episode, she shares what led her to take a stand against coercive, manipulative marketing tactics and create a new standard of marketing based on trust and honesty.

In this episode, we cover:

Today you’ll be hearing from Alice Karolina Smith, the founder of TheEthicalMove.org.

Alice shares a unique story of how she went from dropping out of design school in Switzerland to being exposed to massive levels of income inequality in Bolivia – and how that led her to create an organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of consumerism.

It’s a story of how she reached a breaking point with traditional marketing methods that lead us to compromise our integrity, honesty, and transparency for a sale, and instead decided to focus her energy on encouraging companies to work towards serving the world around us.

In other words, to help companies succeed by putting people first.


Show notes
  • [00:01:38] When Alice started The Ethical Move
  • [00:02:13] What The Ethical Move is about
  • [00:04:35] How Alice’s experience in Bolivia influenced her to found The Ethical Move
  • [00:10:08] Why Alice quit graphic design school
  • [00:11:57] The time between when Alice left school and when she started The Ethical Move
  • [00:14:53] What actions business owners can take to sell ethically while still growing sustainably
  • [00:16:32] The importance of businesses understanding their customers
  • [00:20:15] Why companies should have a purpose behind what they’re doing
  • [00:22:07] An example of a good mission or vision for a company
  • [00:22:54] How helping others succeed can help your business succeed
  • [00:26:44] The next steps for The Ethical Move
  • [00:29:52] How Alice would persuade others to adopt a people-first approach
  • [00:31:40] A resource Alice would recommend use to help people put people first

[00:00:04] David: Welcome to the Human Strike Back by Hotjar, the weekly podcast designed to help you succeed by putting people first. I’m David Peralta. Today, you’ll be hearing from Alice Karolina Smith, the founder of theethicalmove.org. Alice has a very unique story to tell about how she went from dropping out of design school in Switzerland to being exposed to massive levels of income inequality in Bolivia and how that eventually led her to create an organization dedicated to change the way companies contribute to the cycle of consumerism.

It’s a story of how she reached the breaking point with traditional marketing methods that lead us to compromise our integrity, our honesty, and our transparency all for sale, and instead how she decided to focus her energy on encouraging companies to work towards serving the world around us. In other words, to help companies succeed by putting people first. Enjoy.

You're originally from Switzerland?

[00:01:05] Alice: I am, yes. I am part Canadian. I grew up bilingual. That's why I don't really have an accent.

[00:01:10] David: Okay, that's why. Did you grow up in Switzerland or did you grow up in Canada?

[00:01:14] Alice: I did. Born and raised. No, I do say that I identify Swiss. I grew up in Switzerland, went to school there, did everything there and then started traveling when I was 18. That's when everything shifted.

[00:01:27] David: I would love to talk to you about The Ethical Move. How recently did you start it?

[00:01:38] Alice: I started, I guess, in my head, two years ago, maybe, or three years ago? A little more intense and serious this year, and then the actual launch of our movement was in the last two months, maybe three. I wrote an article on manipulation in December of 2017 so that's where everything started. I already had everything set up for the movement but we launched, actually, with everything about a month ago.

[00:02:07] David: Can you tell our listeners in a couple of sentences what The Ethical Move stands for and what it's all about?

[00:02:13] Alice: The Ethical Move really is the start of a conversation around manipulation in marketing. The ultimate goal for it is to create an ethical marketing standard that will then be able to be used to almost like fair trade or organic in the way that we can actually help businesses create brand value through using ethics in marketing as opposed to just having another rule to follow, having more rules to follow. We really want to start finding out what people actually need. This is sort of like the people-first approach, I guess, is we're really starting the conversation. We don't have any answers yet. We have a few things figured out and we're putting a stake in the ground and seeing what comes back.

[00:02:56] David: This is something that's really close to our heart. This is exactly why we reached out to you. Somebody sent us an email about this movement that had just started and we took one look and we thought we have to have you on the show because that's exactly what we're all about. Ultimately, we believe that marketing shouldn't be about manipulating people and coercing them into taking action. It should be about connecting with them, understanding what their needs are, helping them in order to really solve their challenges and their needs, and that by doing that, you create a mutually-beneficial relationship where you help them fulfill their needs, they help you grow your business, and it's win-win for everybody.

[00:03:34] Alice: Absolutely. I think there's a few places where we fall off the wagon, which is one being that we are taught that coercion is normal or that's just the way business is done, and you're not doing a good job if you're not hacking people's minds. Then, the other side is that we really go on the market with all kinds of products that might not actually be necessary, and we're not really taking a hard look at what's really there. If your product doesn't sell at $300–if you have it at $297, you can sell it; if at $300, you can't–then I would really go back and look at the product and find out why because if you have to actually convince someone to buy it, if you had to coerce someone to buy your product, then what's the point?

[00:04:21] David: I definitely want to get into the details of what The Ethical Move stands for and what kind of actions you're supporting, but I'd also like to know about the backstory. What was it that led you to found The Ethical Move?

[00:04:35] Alice: It really started very early on, I think, with just a mother that was very concerned about the world in general. I remember being a kid, listening to the radio–we didn't have a TV–when the Kuwait oil fields were burning, and I just remember my mother actually crying and I didn't know why. I was too young to really understand, but she was crying about the destruction that we're capable of, and that stuck with me throughout the years.

I had my first burnout when I was 17 in graphic design school, and my family decided I should probably take some time off. I went to Bolivia first because that's where my godmother lives. I don't know if you've ever been there. La Paz is almost this cauldron of a city. It's like a valley and, in the middle, there's almost like a cliff, I guess. I don't know if that's actually the right English word for it. It's like a rock face. On top of the rock are maybe 10 or 20 houses of super, super rich people and I mean super, super rich for Bolivian standards. They're quite normal for Switzerland, I guess.

They were basically separated with a gate and a guard from the slum that was right outside, and I mean slum, like abject poverty. That's what you see in Bolivia. I think it's the second poorest country in South America or it wasn't US at the time. It was just so unbelievable to me that we would have these hyper-rich people and really, really, really poor people. I just had this visceral experience of inequality on a level that I couldn't even fathom because I would walk out, I would pick up some rocks for when the dogs came after you–it just was a thing in the slum–and the rich kids would always take taxis.

I just couldn't afford that so I would walk down to the public bus. Then I would take the bus with all these other people from the slum and just drive by so many mudslides where people just died overnight because there's rich people having built houses over a rock that shouldn't be built on. The whole thing just appalled me. It was harrowing to see the actual physical representation of inequality in a perfect image, a perfect metaphor, and I couldn't be with it. I actually moved out from our house because it was also the complaining at her house about the cholitas–the servants, I guess–weren't really picking up their slack or there's not the right Kellogg's at the store. The taxes are getting more expensive to get the kids to tennis practice. All of that just seemed so absolutely irrelevant in comparison to what's happening right outside the gate, which is 100 meters away.

[00:07:30] David: You mean she was complaining about first-world problems while, right outside the door, people were struggling to even survive or get food on the table?

[00:07:38] Alice: Absolutely.

[00:07:39] David: What did that lead you to?

[00:07:42] Alice: It made me go into work research frenzy for the next decade or so, trying to find out how to actually do something about it. I think this is all coming from this, "I need to do something about this. This is not possible," and also an immense amount of guilt that I felt and shame for us for being white. I have stuff thrown at me just because I was white and it was, "Oh, poor me. I had my first experience of racism." I actually agreed with them. I was like, "Yes, you should throw rocks. I get it. I think we are to blame." I just went on this research tour and just couldn't find anything that would actually fit because all of the relief work that we're doing right now, first of all, is fixing, second of all, is still within the same system that is creating the struggle and so I just kept going back, and back, and back, trying to find out what the actual cause is.

[00:08:41] David: What were you identifying was causing it?

[00:08:47] Alice: For lack of a better word, inexplicably high amount of greed on our end, insatiability, needing things, wanting things, buying more things, which leads to cheap labor, cheap production, exploitation. You could go down the rabbit hole of discrimination. Any sort of vile thing in the world is led by or fed by this insatiability that we have, this insatiable appetite for more. That's not a bad thing. It was basically bred into us. It's not like we know how to fix it, I guess, or we don't know how to be with it as much because the only way I know how to keep myself from wanting things is not to look at anything because we're inundated by everything.

The message is in the marketing and everything is just pounding at our heads all the time. Of course, it's hard to not want. If you're constantly told that you're not beautiful enough without this or not successful enough without that, then, of course, you're constantly doubting yourself and of course, you're always going to want to find the thing that's going to make you whole or that's going to make you better.

[00:09:57] David: You actually went back to Switzerland and you decided to quit your graphic design school and not go back. Tell me a little bit more about that.

[00:10:08] Alice: That's pretty much exactly where I saw, all of a sudden, that I was part of the people creating the cheat code to make people want more things. If I made something red, that meant it sold better, and I just, for lack of a better word, couldn't be with it. I couldn't be part of the problem, I guess, that was creating it. I know that we were just the people executing it in the end, but it just felt like I couldn't be with it. I couldn't create stuff that would then coerce people to buy, would manipulate people into feeling a certain way or feeling lack or feeling like they need something extra when actually they really don't. That's where I saw the actual power of manipulation.

Communication and manipulation had always been part of our conversation at home. My mother taught communication in my school, actually. It was always part of the conversation. It just had always been looked at almost like a good thing. I know I'm saying it like that like a lot of people think of it as a good thing, actually, or something that's not able to be changed, or something human, or something that is just part of us.

We manipulate. We put on something pretty to look good to make people want to hang out with us. I don't know. I'm just using an arbitrary example, but we use makeup, which is also a sense of manipulation. The animal world uses it, too. It's not completely inhumane. It's just the way that we're using it is currently just in service of profit and not in service of people, and I think that's where the problem lies.

[00:11:51] David: How long was it between doing that and starting The Ethical Move?

[00:11:57] Alice: I guess, fairly early on, people would ask me to speak out a bit more about what I saw as being manipulative like pricing, things like that, that I'm sure we'll go into in a minute. Then, I think, maybe a year into it, I just had this burning where I'm really, really, really tired of being manipulated and having all these emails coming to my inbox with, "Last chance," and, "This is the only way you'll be happy." It just seemed like somebody needs to say something about taking responsibility in this.

[00:12:31] David: So, you decided to take that first step?

[00:12:33] Alice: Yeah, I did.

[00:12:36] David: You say something on your homepage which I really liked which just said, "Businesses are waiting for customers to vote with their dollar, but that's only half of the equation. It's actually up to us, as the business owners, to take that first step and change the conversation."

[00:12:53] Alice: Absolutely. To really go deep into it, it's kind of an abusive relationship, almost. It's like we have the customer almost having to battle this constant barrage of imagery and what they should be doing, and they're trying their hardest to buy consciously if they are a conscious consumer. Not everybody is but, generally, I know that most people care about what they buy and they want to make good choices and conscious choices. The business owners are still told that by coaches, programs, courses.

You're just not a good business person if you can't grab their attention in a certain way, or you need to do this with your funnel, or you need to do this. It just becomes this weird robot machine thing that doesn't really have any human element to it. I know that people are going a little bit more towards connection and communication, but it's still a long ways to go. I think that businesses really need to look at what they're selling and how they're selling it because their customers are the most valued assets, if you think about it, and constantly coercing them is just not ethical. That's basically it.

[00:14:22] David: In other words, you're envisioning a world where we don't need to coerce anybody, we don't need to manipulate anybody into doing anything, we don't need to sell things for 1999 because more people might buy it there than at $20. What I'm wondering is, what kind of actions can business owners take to build more ethical businesses that don't need to manipulate, that don't need to coerce but still grow sustainably.

[00:14:53] Alice: Right now, what we're doing with the movement is, first of all, join the movement, take the pledge. The first pledge that we have is actually changing our pricing from a charm price which is 9s and 7s and all of those endings–let's say $2.97–to a round number. $350, $300, something that people can actually use and not have a glitch happen in their head, which is a thing that happens when we see 9s. We just think it's cheaper. That's the first pledge that we're suggesting.

We're actually not at a place where we can say, "Hey, here's more pledges. Here's more ways of doing it. We know that scarcity and urgency are in the next realm so maybe stop filling your courses with lying about how many people there are actually in it." For example, saying, " There's only two seats left," when there's actually nine. Things like that where it's just basically being incredibly transparent.

There's also ways of actually communicating transparency, which we're currently looking at, which is if you write an email, if you write a campaign, why not just say, "Hey, this is what we're selling. This is why we're selling it right now. This is why you should buy it. Here's the price. What do you think? This is Email 1 of 5 . I'm going to send you five more emails." I know that you guys actually do this, which I think is awesome. "This is Email 1 of 5 . This is about this thing, and then Email 2 will be about this. Email 3 will be about this," just so the person actually on the receiving end knows exactly what they're in for.

[00:16:32] David: I know that there's a lot of pushback against this because people think, "Well, if you do that, then you might not end up with as many customers." But I think what a missing piece is for a lot of people that many people maybe just kind of forget about is that in order to do this successfully, you really, really, really need to understand your customer and you really need to put a lot of effort into user research and understanding who they really are. Understanding what their needs are, what their pain points are, what are the current challenges that they're facing, how are they talking about what these problems are so that we can communicate with them in a way that's resonating with them, that's transparent with them, and then also understanding how can you present what you're talking about in a way that expresses what you have to offer but also fulfills that need.

I think that that's something that a lot of people look past when they think, "Okay, it sounds all great but if you don't do all the scarcity tactics, then you're not just going to end up with as many customers," but that's just leaving out this huge portion of, "No, if you really understand your customer, if you resonate with people, they're going to come." They'll find you and if you place yourself correctly, there's going to be interest.

[00:17:51] Alice: Absolutely. I think there's also a mentality that feeds back into the same loop, which is this instant gratification that we have where we need to use scarcity tactics in order to make profit today whereas what I'm suggesting with a more ethical approach means, "Take your time. Look at what your people are saying. Try to learn to speak their language. Immerse yourself in their culture. Almost travel there and see what their world is like and then create a world that they actually want to live in." That's my approach anyways.

From there, you will have the right people and the people who will actually want to work with you. Most of what we're looking at right now is referral business anyways so you might not actually have any losses if you choose to be on their side as opposed to your side. I think that's what I'm asking with The Ethical Move, is you actually will generate a positive impact if you can say, "Hey, I'm part of a movement that says let's be more ethical so I'm going to communicate more transparently and give you all of the choice and give you all of the options that I have, and you can actually choose freely. There's no push. There's no coercion. You can just choose freely."

I swear anyone whoever lets me choose freely, I will want to work with them. It's almost like a reverse benefit, I think, of choosing to maybe not use the typical tactics that will probably generate numbers but go for quality instead and longevity. We're looking at a sustainable long-term business. If you want to coerce your people and go into scarcity, and do all of that, and make a ton of money, okay but, most likely, you will crash and burn. I'm not saying that that will absolutely happen because lots of business have proven it otherwise. I'm just saying that we are actually shifting right now.

I think people are becoming more conscious and I think it would be, just from a long-term perspective as a brander, it just doesn't seem like the right way to go when we're actually looking at people more interested in conscious consumerism and, "How can I help the planet?" If you're a part of something or if your business is part of something that's positive, people will want to work with you. It's about you and them, not about necessarily the exact way in which you work together.

[00:20:15] David: Right. Also, I think a big part of it is having a deeper meaning and a deeper purpose behind what you're doing, having a "why" for what you're doing that other people can really believe in because there have actually been studies that show that companies that have purpose and that have vision that everybody can align behind and that everybody can stand behind inside of that company, they tend to do up to six times better in revenue and productivity than companies that don't have that. When you don't have that, you end up feeling that vision vacuum with tracking unnecessary metrics and measuring things that don't really need to be measured. Anyway, there's actual studies that support the fact that putting the effort into understanding the "why", the purpose and the vision behind what you're doing, actually has a significant long-term impact.

[00:21:10] Alice: Absolutely, and that's exactly it: it has a long-term impact. It's something that will grow over time. It might not be the exact moment that you're doing it–it can be though–and it also has to be something that's not necessarily only of benefit to you. This is something that I find a lot of people fall into the trap of making their vision something really, really close to home where they benefit from it primarily. This is actually almost like a key, is to make it about them, make it about anything else. Make it so that if somebody fulfilled on your vision first and did the thing that you said you were going to do with your mission, you wouldn't be upset, but it would be a good thing and you would want to take on something else after that. If you need to fulfill your mission in order to feel satisfied, then it's probably about you, still.

[00:22:04] David: Can you give me an example of a good mission or a good vision?

[00:22:07] Alice: Yeah. If you think about it, a lot of people are just saying, "I care about helping people." That to me, first of all, is just a bit loose. It's not really a differentiating communication tool but, on the other hand, it still means that it's just not big enough to make an impact versus, for example, say–and I'm just going to use mine because I find it illuminates what I mean. My purpose is to break consumerism. I want to stop the cycle and I actually don't care if I live to see that or not. If somebody took care of that tomorrow, I would be fine with that and I would congratulate them and go take a nap.

[00:22:54] David: I understand what you mean. For this show, and its community and this movement that we're hoping to encourage with The Humans Strike Back. It's all about helping people succeed, helping others succeed by putting people first. For us, that's the first and foremost most important thing. We're at a company, Hotjar. We do sell a product but when we started this show, we knew that the most important thing that we were going to do with this show was not going to have anything to do with Hotjar.

It was about genuinely helping people succeed. Of course, we knew that the more we do that, people are going to become aware of Hotjar and people are going to become aware of what we do. But we also knew that it would enable people to understand what Hotjar really stands for and what Hotjar is all about, and that we're not out there to try to sell our product and we're not just out there to get more people to use our tool. We're out there to make a difference. We're out there to really make the world a better place. We're out there to make the web a better place. We're out there to help people embrace a people-first mentality because that's the way to succeed, and we're interested in other people succeeding because the more other people succeed, the better the world gets in general. It's a win-win all around.

The moment we started with this message, suddenly, we got this huge wave of positive feedback, and support, and subscribers. We didn't really have to make a massive effort to find that because people were really hungry for a message like that. That's, for us, what it's all about and that has to stay our priority the entire time because we can't think about, "Okay, how are we going to get more open rights? How are we going to increase our click-through rate?" Of course, we're looking at these things as a sign, like how are people resonating with the content that we're creating. If the open rights are going down, we're probably doing something that's not resonating with them but, at the same time, the goal is not to increase our conversion rate. The goal is not to increase open rates. The goal is to help people. The goal is to champion a people-first cause and, like you said, we don't know if this is going to happen in our lifetime or this'll become a mainstream thing but we're doing our part to make a dent.

[00:24:08] Alice: Exactly. It's interesting how you were saying you're not trying to just get the conversation rate up because we know what to do in order to get conversion rate up. There's tools, methods and tactics you can use, but that's just such a cheap way of doing things. That's always what surprises me. I'm like, "That's so boring, You're really not making a whole lot of effort, are you? You're just using as many tricks as possible to get it to work."

[00:25:36] David: I know firsthand because I've been in that position. I was at a company where that was my job. How can I increase the visitor-to-email subscriber ratio? I tested all kinds of things and, eventually, I got it really high, much higher than industry average, but, in the end, what was I doing? Was I really helping these people? No, I was tricking them into getting our email list which, in the end didn't really make sense because they weren't really the right people.

[00:26:05] Alice: What were they there for? Exactly. They're the kind of people who would go into the funnel that actually would not serve, like it wouldn't serve them and it wouldn't serve you. There's no actual relationship there if you just hacked their minds.

[00:26:23] David: Exactly. What are the next steps for The Ethical Move? At the moment, you're getting people to create this pledge to commit to round numbers instead of these charm prices. What else are you envisioning? What kind of impact would you like The Ethical Move to have?

[00:26:44] Alice: Well, if I'm completely 100% honest–and this is where truth always takes a bit of courage–we're actually wanting to make a big enough shift that we, as a movement, could win a Nobel Prize. That's what we're headed with it. That's the big end goal, anything that we can do in service of that, which means that we actually have changed in the world. The very next steps are creating a new pledge. Beyond the round numbers, we're going to wait until we have a certain substantial amount of people having pledged that we can start the conversation.

We have a medium publication that we're starting this month. We have a podcast that we want to start as well. We have quite a few people onboard who want to do different things that we're still sort of deciding how to go forth because we really want to take it slow. We don't want to feed the same noise loop that we already are experiencing plenty of. Then, by next year, we would like to have our standards set with maybe about 5 pledges, maybe 10 depending on how many pledges we can come up with that actually have a solid enough base.

I find the round numbers pledge is a very easy one because it's just black and white. It's digits. One is manipulative; the other one is not. As soon as you go into scarcity tactics, sometimes there really is only one seat left and you want to tell people to say, "Hey, there's only one seat left," and there's a lot of grey area in the entire conversation around manipulation. What we're really looking for is just starting the conversation, creating a community of people who are willing to look it again, and again, and again because it just requires courage and responsibility to look at what we're doing as sellers and see, "Maybe a transparency campaign will be good," or, "Maybe I will stop using images of children if there's no children in the program," or, "Oh, this is actually a thing that I saw that we might look at it in the movement."

We're really just opening our arms and going, "Alright, let's have a conversation. Everybody, come on in." We're just really looking to broaden the horizon at the moment and to make it an issue as opposed to standing there and saying, "Hey, this is really not cool." We just want to put some stakes on the ground and see what happens. Because of course, somebody can have an ethical business but use charm prices and not necessarily be an unethical person. I'm just asking people to take the pledge anyways to just take a stand and become part of a different way of thinking so we can make it okay that people can actually do different ways of using different marketing tactics that do not include coercion.

[00:29:42] David: A lot of people are on the fence about embracing a people-first approach. What would you say to them to help them understand that this really is the only sustainable way to succeed?

[00:29:52] Alice: We're going to be more, and more, and more people. I don't know anyone who's ever lived in Europe or anywhere where it's really dense will understand how it's not going to get better, so to speak. We're going to need to share more. We're going to be more community-oriented, I think, in the future as a society. If we actually want to make a difference in the world, if we say we want to make a difference, then we need to absolutely take responsibility for how we sell things and what we bring to the market.

If you bring cheap products and just sort of another profit-making machine to the market, then I wonder if you really mean it when you say you care about the world. If you do care about the world–and I think most of us do, most of us in the online business world anyways that I know actually really care–then why not try it? We won't know until we try. We have no idea what's on the other side of manipulation. We don't know what's on the other side of only profit; we just haven't lived it yet.

It might actually be way better over there but unless we rally and do it, we will never find out. Then, we just have this same old-school mentality that was given to us by Mad Men and we just continue using the same rules. To me, it just makes no sense that we are the new economy and we just keep using the old economies' rules. That, to me, is silly also. It's almost like, "Look at what we've got. We have infinite possibility with the internet and anything is possible so why don't we use that anything instead of sticking to the same old rules?"

[00:31:35] David: If you had to pick one resource to help our listeners succeed by putting people first, what would it be?

[00:31:40] Alice: Honestly, I was thinking about this long and hard. Honestly, call a client. Find out what they're at, like getting communication with your people. There's not really a resource better than the voices of your people.

[00:31:54] David: You mean actual face-to-face contact, human-to-human contact with your actual customers to learn what it is that they actually need or what their actual situation is?

[00:32:02] Alice: Actually, listen, don't sort of reflect back on your product but maybe there's a product out there that they want that you're capable of making but you just haven't heard about or you haven't had the openness to hear it. Just try and be filter-free and discover instead of trying to figure out. Just sit back.

[00:32:22] David: Great. Finally, where can people learn more about The Ethical Move and the work that you're doing?

[00:32:28] Alice: We are at theethicalmove.org. We're currently building out all of our social media so we're not anywhere else yet, but that's where you can find us. You can send us an email there. We have a few members that are working on it, that I'm working on it with each other on websites so you can also contact them directly. We're just going to be creating more and more content, and an online community, and all kinds of ways in which people can start this conversation.

[00:33:00] David: Alice, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing about the great work that you're doing. I really appreciate having you here.

[00:33:06] Alice: Thank you for having me on.

[00:33:15] Louis: Thanks for listening, my fellow human. We know how fast paced life is. If you're listening to this on your daily commute, while running, or even cooking, you can always go to Hotjar.com/humans and look for today's episode. That's where you'll find access to all the resources and humans we talked about, the full transcript of the conversation, and even links to really see the episodes.

[00:33:38] David: If you like today's episode, please help us out by leaving your honest rating and review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast. The more honest feedback we get, the more we can improve the show for you, and the more this podcast will be discovered by other humans. It's a win-win situation. Until next time, take care and be human.