In 1977, Dungeons & Dragons created the alignment chart – a simple two-axis where characters could be classified as good or evil, lawful or chaotic. Sometime in the 2010s, the idea of the alignment chart went far beyond its gaming origins, and became a piece of pop culture in its own right. Everything from people to food, maps to bookmarks, can be categorized on an alignment chart.
Here are a few examples of what I mean.
But you know what I’ve yet to find that I’m satisfied with? A marketing alignment chart.
It’s time to fix that! Marketing can run the gamut from Good to Evil, Lawful (orderly) to Chaotic. In a world where a lot of marketing is imagined as being intrinsically Evil, a marketing alignment chart – despite being a silly, dated meme – can show just how much nuance there is.
This marketing alignment chart of mine is not the word of God. But it is a fun tool to talk about marketing and ethics. Deciding what goes into which category isn’t easy, so if you disagree or would like to add something to the chart, sound off in the comments and I might just add your suggestion!
Breaking down our marketing alignment chart
Now that you’ve seen the whole chart, I’d like to run through it section by section so you can understand some of the nuances and reasoning behind each item.
Marketing Alignment Chart: Lawful Good
Both honorable and kind, Lawful Good characters believe that working together and following a code of conduct makes life better for everyone.TV Tropes, Character Alignment
When it comes to Lawful Good, the key thing that sets it apart from Neutral Good is following an orderly system. In the business world, that essentially means “doing things that you’re ‘supposed’ to do, but doing them with a spirit of kindness.”
Marketing is an intrinsically creative business, which makes it generally not “Lawful” in the sense that term is used on alignment charts. However, there are some basic marketing functions that simply have to be done in orderly ways and that are intrinsically good.
First, there is corporate social responsibility (CSR). Done with good intent, CSR initiatives are where businesses voluntarily do philanthropic, activist, or charity work. The business logic is that it is good for public relations, and therefore branding. This makes sense, because 47% of Gen Z believes brands should “speak out because it is the right thing to do,” and you see similar trends with Millenials as well.
Another Lawful Good marketing action is “looking professional.” This means doing simple things like making sure your small business has a dedicated phone line and email address, a website, decent-looking logo, and so on. These are all basic, simple, necessary parts of doing business. But it’s also good because even taking the time to appear professional can actually materially improve customer experience. So it is, in that sense, an act of kindness.
Providing customer service and, for businesses selling physical goods, providing return policies is crucial. It’s a requirement of being in business. However, if return policies are implemented generously and customer service is polite and helpful, this can be Lawful Good.
Marketing Alignment Chart: Neutral Good
Sweetness and light. Doing good is more important than upholding the law, but law is not a bad thing.TV Tropes, Character Alignment
The most important parts of ethical marketing, I would argue, are Neutral Good. Marketing is messy and human and focuses on consumer behavior, which while it does follow some rules, is also intrinsically contradictory.
For example, one of the most critical parts of succeeding in marketing is making sure what you sell has good product-market fit. That is to say, simply make sure that what you’re selling is a good match for the people you are selling it to. This will require you to always consider your customers’ feelings, but it also requires you to be open to throwing out the pre-existing playbook and forging a new path.
Another part of successful marketing is building a brand. You need people to associate certain images, colors, and behaviors with your business. This requires you to be organized and deliberate so that you have a consistent brand image. It also requires you to pay attention to what your customers like so you can speak to them in the way they wish to be spoken to. But like with product-market fit, you may very well find yourself building a brand that doesn’t look like anything else out there.
Other Neutral Good marketing behaviors include creating educational content marketing to help people learn how to do things on their own. It doesn’t directly lead to sales, but it does put a lot of goodwill out there, and that’s important. Similarly, designing systems that provide a good user experience and sending thoughtfully crafted email marketing also falls under Neutral Good.
The common thread here: Neutral Good marketing requires you to be systematic and deliberate, but to ultimately put the customer over “the rules.”
Marketing Alignment Chart: Chaotic Good
Rebels and free spirits who are stereotypically found opposing tyrants and other oppressive types. They tend to believe that things like order, discipline, and honor can get in the way of doing good.TV Tropes, Character Alignment
Sometimes good marketing requires taking risks and having no idea what the outcome is going to be. Done with goodwill and decency, this can fall under Chaotic Good.
For example, if you pursue a passion project and ignore market research, that’s pretty chaotic and risky. But if you stay in touch with your audience and listen to their feedback, you can ultimately make a pretty good and very unique product or service by following your heart.
Similarly, relationship marketing can really help you to grow your business. However, when you focus on individuals instead of large groups with common interests, you may end up tailoring your products or services to an extreme degree. For some businesses, this is a really good solution, albeit not a scaleable one. Still, there’s no denying that spending time building relationships to the degree I’ve just described is thoughtful.
Networking events and conventions are important to attend from time to time, but they’re always at least a little chaotic. You never know who you’re going to bump into or what’s going to happen. You simply go in the hopes that serendipity will strike, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all!
Chaotic Good marketing means being kind while ignoring systems and predictability.
Marketing Alignment Chart: Lawful Neutral
If it’s against the rules, then it’s bad, no matter what. Lawful Neutral characters believe that order is more important than kindness, empathy and understanding.TV Tropes, Character Alignment
Lawful Neutral marketing means following the rules and staying away from egregiously harming others. The way I think of it, this entails using clearly systems with strict guidelines that result in outcomes that are a toss-up between useful and time-wasting.
Truth be told, Lawful Neutral marketing is often necessary. Not everything can be altruistic, and sometimes you just have to punch the clock and get work done.
For example, social media advertising, when targeted well and done without deception, to me, is Lawful Netural. You will reach people on social media networks and interrupt them with a message of your choosing. As long as you put thought and care into the message itself and the audience you choose to show it to, it’s not Evil. It will help a small percentage of people greatly while slightly annoying a large percentage of people. It’s a trade-off.
Similarly, there are content mills. These are websites that put out articles that sort of answer your questions, but not to the degree that you would like; or, alternatively, put out inconsequential but ultimately harmless articles like Buzzfeed. These websites have strict guidelines and schedules that must be met, which is part of why quality is so variable. Content mills seldom lie, but they also seldom change readers’ lives for the better.
Marketing Alignment Chart: True Neutral
Sometimes known as just Neutral, or even Neutral Neutral. Comes in two flavors: Keeping the Balance and Just Doesn’t Care.TV Tropes, Character Alignment
To me, paid media and mass media is the essence of True Neutral marketing. This involves broadcasting a fairly general message to a fairly general audience. Return on investment is kind of difficult to track, and it’s also hard to make sure you’re reaching the right people. But it’s also, when combined with other good marketing practices, a necessary part of your overall marketing plan.
Paid media and sponsored content, to me, is a good example of True Neutral marketing. For example, when a beauty influencer discloses their affiliation with a brand and makes their fans aware of a product, that is True Neutral. It’s hard to track the effect of influencer marketing, and you know at least a few people are steamed about getting goods hocked to them by an internet celebrity. But it also works, and it’s not outright mean or deceptive.
Similarly, if you watch the kind of banal ads that make it on TV, you’ll notice that only a handful of brands can really effectively advertise there. TV ads reach a really wide audience, so what can they advertise except for high-value products like cars or things everyone needs like toothpaste?
Marketing Alignment Chart: Chaotic Neutral
Chaotic Neutral characters are all about freedom, and don’t care so much about rules or morality. They’re wild, carefree and selfish, but not so callous or sadistic as to be actually evil.TV Tropes, Character Alignment
Chaotic Neutral marketing is all about raw self-interest, but it isn’t actually mean. In my opinion, if you do cold calling or emailing to a well-targeted audience, and you set out to provide real useful information and establish meaningful relationships, then that’s Chaotic Neutral.
Why? Well, no one wants your cold email or cold call. They just don’t. But if you go out of your way to provide value, vet each individual lead in a way that’s not exactly scalable, and focus on the individual, it can end up being not-so-bad.
Marketing Alignment Chart: Lawful Evil
Organized evil with a master plan. Often members of The Empire, they use organization, rules and honor to their advantage, inflicting their will on others by achieving power within the system.TV Tropes, Character Alignment
Lawful Evil marketing entails being deliberate, careful, and systematic but with a ruthless focus on the bottom line, and not people and their needs. This is Dollar General pushing their way into low-income neighborhoods and Nestlé buying up access to creeks and rivers to sell it back to you in a bottle. These are legal, valid, and smart business maneuvers, and also the kind of things that people call out as being examples of predatory late capitalism.
To be honest, if you look at big companies and VC-funded startups, you won’t find any shortage of Lawful Evil marketing techniques. However, there are a few that I think are especially worth mentioning.
I said earlier that corporate social responsibility is Lawful Good when done properly and with good intent. However, companies can also use CSR to pretend to be ethical, decent companies while actually doing real harm. A good example of this is greenwashing, a phenomenon in which companies pretend to be eco-friendly while destroying the environment. A similar phenomenon is rainbow-washing, which is where companies pretend to support LGBTQ rights with things like rainbow logos while actually doing nothing to help members of those communities.
To be crystal clear: the problem is not companies being activists or philanthropists. The Lawful Evil technique is pretending to be virtuous, while actually being vicious.
Then you also have dark patterns, which are sneaky ways to design computer systems to make you do things you don’t want to do. For example, if you try to cancel your subscription, and the “no, don’t cancel my subscription” button is way bigger than the tiny “yes, cancel my subscription” text below it, then the company’s trying to trick you. This is a pretty insidious trend that has popped up in the last decade, and you can read more about it here.
Marketing Alignment Chart: Neutral Evil
The consummate pragmatists, Neutral Evil characters don’t find themselves shackled to their impulses or bound by rules of law and honor. They are only interested in one thing: themselves. They’ll do whatever is most prudent to get them to their desired destination, no matter who they have to hurt along the way.TV Tropes, Character Alignment
To me, Neutral Evil marketing is when you game the system in sneaky, complicated ways for purely selfish reasons but stop short of breaking the law.
Search engine optimization (SEO) can be Neutral Evil. While a lot of SEO ultimately comes down to making an easy-to-use website with valuable content, there are still some ways to game the system. Unethical SEO practices are called “black hat SEO.”
It’s hard to describe what black hat SEO actually entails because search engines are always trying to render their methods obsolete. In the past, black hat SEO involved stuffing keywords on pages and exchanging links with other seedy websites. Over a decade ago, you would sometimes see websites that would hide a bunch of unrelated keywords in – I kid you not – white text on a white background so that search engines would rank the web page higher for irrelevant keywords. This increased traffic and could, at times, be effective at even increasing sales. But it’s deceptive.
Also in the Neutral Evil category are cold calls and emails to nearly random businesses. This is a less Chaotic effort than targeted, relationship-driven cold contact, but it is also inherently more annoying to reach out to people with a useless message who are outside of your target market.
Any other behavior that can be thought of as aggressive self-promotion would also likely fall into this category.
Marketing Alignment Chart: Chaotic Evil
Will do whatever they want to, especially if it hurts other people, without regard for the rules. While a Neutral Evil person would work within the system until it was convenient not to, a chaotic evil person would often work outside the system.TV Tropes, Character Alignment
Chaotic Evil marketing is all about lies, lies, and more lies. It’s about screwing other people out of their money, with all laws, ethics, and codes of conduct to be disregarded entirely.
Chaotic Evil is outright spam, deception, and fraud. The Kickstarter that never delivers or refunds after five years and goes totally silent is Chaotic Evil. The person who tries to sell you a car without a working odometer on Craigslist is Chaotic Evil. That guy in The Tinder Swinder is Chaotic Evil.
Needless to say, there are no valid marketing techniques that are Chaotic Evil.
Marketing can be good or evil, orderly or chaotic. If your goal is to scale your business, stick to the Lawful and Neutral, instead of Chaotic. Otherwise, if you want to make an indelible mark on people that no one else can imitate, Chaotic is the way to go. Choosing between Lawful and Chaotic is a matter of personal choice and what you feel comfortable with based on your goals.
But when it comes to Good and Evil, the choice is less stark. In everything you do, consider your customers’ emotions. Doing this will land you consistently in the Good or Neutral categories at a minimum instead of Evil.
Most of all, take some time to think about how your actions impact others. Even if your thinking takes the form of a silly marketing alignment chart!