Navigating the fine line

Mar 17, 2024

The line between persuasive marketing and over-promising can be particularly fine and fraught with potential hazards.

In an industry as dynamic and multifaceted as ours, the power of marketing cannot be overstated. However, with this power comes a significant responsibility: to adhere to ethical marketing practices. In a sector where projects don’t just shape landscapes but also impact communities and economies, the line between persuasive marketing and over-promising can be particularly fine and fraught with potential hazards.

Ethical marketing in the AEC industry is not just about avoiding false claims or exaggerated capabilities; it’s about fostering trust, transparency, and long-term relationships. Our clients entrust AEC firms with significant financial resources, their ambitions, and, often, their community’s well-being. This trust, once broken, can be challenging to regain. We’ve all been there.

Additionally, the consequences of unethical marketing can extend beyond client relationships. They can affect a firm’s reputation, employee morale, and even its legal standing. Therefore, navigating the ethics of marketing is not just a legal obligation; it’s a strategic imperative.

Transparency and realistic promises. I believe transparency is the cornerstone of ethical marketing. This means being honest about capabilities, timelines, costs, and potential risks. In the world of AEC, over-promising in marketing materials and proposals can lead to under-delivering in reality, and it often does. Such discrepancies can result in cost overruns, project delays, and legal disputes. WK Dickson has benefited from many such claims – mainly from unrealistic schedules, where competitors cut corners, ultimately leading to their release from the contract.

To maintain transparency, firms should ensure their marketing materials, including digital content, websites, proposal documents, and brochures (if you still use them), accurately represent their portfolio, expertise, and resources. Testimonials and case studies, powerful tools in any marketer’s arsenal, must be presented truthfully, highlighting successes and challenges and how they were overcome. A mentor once taught me to tell real “hero versus villain” stories as a way to convey the complexity of a project.

Navigating client testimonials and case studies. Client testimonials and case studies effectively showcase expertise and build credibility. However, they must be handled with care. Ensuring client consent and presenting their words and experiences accurately is crucial. Misrepresentation not only damages trust but can also lead to legal complications. A former coworker once asked me if they could change a word or two in a client’s testimonial to better highlight our success on a project. I said, “Only if you have their written consent.”

Moreover, providing a balanced view while showcasing successful projects is important. This might mean discussing what went right, the hurdles encountered, and how they were addressed. Such a balanced approach enhances credibility and demonstrates problem-solving skills and resilience – valuable traits in AEC. Sadly, too many of our industry’s project descriptions are overly wordy and technical.

Balancing persuasion and realism. Marketing, by its nature, involves a certain level of persuasion. In fact, I have a post-it note on my monitor that reads, “Perspective is everything,” to remind myself that my team and I are responsible for conveying a particular look and feel from an outsider’s point of view, not just our own. This often translates into convincing potential clients of our firm’s unique capabilities in delivering a project better than the other firms. The key is to balance this persuasion with realism. Avoiding inflated language and ensuring that all claims are backed by evidence is essential. How many of your proposals have sentences that read, “We guarantee success”?

For example, if WK Dickson claimed to be a leader in resilient design practices, this should be supported by specific examples of resilient projects, certifications, or awards. Such evidence-based marketing not only upholds ethical standards but also reinforces a firm’s credibility and expertise and, by extension, makes us a leader in that particular field.

Internal ethics and employee advocacy. Ethical marketing is not just an external affair. Internally, fostering a culture where ethical practices are understood and valued is important. When employees, from top management to junior staff, understand and buy into the ethical standards of their firm, they become authentic advocates of the brand. Employee advocacy, rooted in genuine belief in the firm’s values and practices, is a powerful form of marketing. This can easily be conveyed during the onboarding process or orientation.

But sometimes, even well-placed efforts can lead to trouble – for example, using Google images in marketing materials. We occasionally find them embedded in documents, PowerPoints, and conference abstracts. The problem is that those images, or any found online, are generally copyrighted. Some might argue that it’s only being used internally, but it speaks to the ethical culture your firm is trying to uphold. We once had a PDF case study uploaded to our website, and after a few months, we received a cease and desist letter from a legal team saying we used an image that was not appropriately licensed. That hard lesson cost us $4,000 for the copyright license and its prorated use.

Long-term benefits of ethical marketing. Adopting ethical marketing practices might seem challenging in an industry as competitive as AEC. However, the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term gains of any unethical or exaggerated shortcuts. Firms that consistently adhere to ethical marketing practices build stronger, more trusting client relationships. They also develop a reputation for reliability and integrity, which can be a significant differentiator in the market. It’s one of our values.

Besides, ethical marketing practices contribute to the overall health of the industry. They set a standard encouraging fair competition and innovation, ultimately leading to better services and outcomes for clients and their communities.

Ethical marketing in the AEC industry is about much more than avoiding false advertising. It’s about building a foundation of trust with clients, employees, and the wider community. By committing to transparency, accurate representation, and evidence-based persuasion, firms can not only navigate marketing challenges but also carve out a reputation for integrity and excellence. In an industry that shapes our physical world, the importance of such a reputation cannot be overstated. 

Kraig Kern, CPSM is vice president and director of marketing at WK Dickson. Contact him at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.