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5.4: B2B and B2C Marketer Ethical Dilemmas

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    What you’ll learn to do: explain how ethical dilemmas in business-to-business marketing differ from those in consumer marketing

    In June 2013, Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the U.S., announced that it had signed a $30 million contract with Apple to provide students with iPads that were preloaded with educational software from Pearson PLC. It was an ambitious education technology initiative that promised to give students new learning tools and technology literacy.

    By the end of 2015 the superintendent would resign, the program the would be canceled, Pearson’s philanthropic foundation would be closed, the companies would pay a $6.4 settlement to the school district to prevent litigation, and the FBI would be involved in a criminal probe of the program. It would be hard to imagine a worse result for any of the parties involved.

    Circumventing the Public Bid Process

    California law requires that such large projects to go to public bid, which this project did, but well before the bid process, the email record between LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and then CEO of Pearson Marjorie Scardino suggested that deals were made to purchase Pearson curriculum and Apple hardware. In fact, Superintendent Deasy made the inital introduction between Scardino and Apple CEO. In an email to Scardino, Deasy writes:

    I wanted to let you know I have [sic] an excellent meeting with Tim at Apple last Friday. The meeting went very well and he was fully committed to being a partner. He said he and his team will take 5 days to present a price plan and scope of partnership. He was very excited about being a partner with Pearson. I think it would be good for you to loop back with him at this point. I will reach out to you again in a week.[1]

    Deputy Superintendent Jaime Aquino was tasked to work with Pearson on the project in advance of the bid process. His email messages indicate that he was attempting to influence the bid process in Pearson’s favor. His email messages to Pearson executives include the following statements:

    I am not sure if legally we can enter into an agreement when we have not reviewed the final product for each grade and if the materials have not been approved by the state.

    I believe we would have to make sure that your bid is the lowest one.[2]

    Violating the Restriction on Nonprofit Philanthropy

    Pearson’s non-profit philanthropy foundation was also involved in securing the deal, which violated certain federal restrictions. A Pearson Foundation vice president, Sherry King, was deeply involved in discussions with top officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District about selling the district the new Common Core digital curriculum in 2012 and 2013, well in advance of the formal bid process. The Pearson Foundation was providing education leadership grants to LAUSD as early as 2007.[3]

    The Pearson Foundation came under fire for another tactic. The New York Times reported:

    In recent years, the Pearson Foundation has paid to send state education commissioners to meet with their international counterparts in London, Helsinki, Singapore and, just last week, Rio de Janeiro.

    The commissioners stay in expensive hotels, like the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore. They spend several days meeting with educators in these places. They also meet with top executives from the commercial side of Pearson, which is one of the biggest education companies in the world, selling standardized tests, packaged curriculums and Prentice Hall textbooks.[4]

    The New York Times reported that Gavin Payne of California participated in an expense-paid trip to Singapore.

    The Pearson Foundation was also fighting battles over its tactics in New York state, where the New York state attorney general won a $7.7 million judgment against the foundation. His written statement read:

    The fact is that Pearson is a for-profit corporation, and they are prohibited by law from using charitable funds to promote and develop for-profit products. I’m pleased that this settlement will direct millions of dollars back to where they belong.

    The Pearson Foundation board announced that it was closing the foundation in December 2013, after the New York judgment.

    Poor Execution from All Players

    Almost immediately after the district announced the deal, Apple unveiled new, updated iPads—in other words, from the get-go, students in the district would be receiving out-of-date devices. The cost the district was paying per iPad was actually higher than the regular consumer price. Many schools did not have the Wi-Fi infrastructure needed to support devices for all students. The district hadn’t created policies or plans for loss or theft. Students bypassed security protocols so they could install music and video apps. The iPads were supposed to come preloaded with Common Core–aligned curriculum, designed by the education behemoth Pearson. But the curriculum was incomplete. A report[5] on the district’s iPad program revealed that only one teacher actually used the Pearson materials.[6]

    The Fallout

    In October 2014, John Deasy resigned his role as superintendent.

    In December 2015, with the help of a grand-jury subpoena, the FBI seized twenty boxes of documentation related to the procurement process. No charges have been made since the seizure.

    Immediately after the subpoena and FBI seizure, Deasy’s successor canceled the contract with Apple (and therefore Pearson).

    In September 2015, the vendors (Apple, Pearson, and hardware-provider Lenovo)collectively agreed to pay LAUSD a $6.4 million settlement. Pearson has agreed to pay the full $6.4 million.

    When businesses engage in selling to other businesses or to government entities, the laws, policies, norms, and ethics change. Some challenges involved in marketing to consumers are minimized, or go away altogether, but other ones arise. In this module we will explore the unique ethical challenges and opportunities in business-to-business marketing.

    The specific things you’ll learn in this section include:

    • Explain how B2B marketing creates unique ethical risks and challenges
    • Describe the risks associated with customer gifts and bribes

    You will recall that business-to-business (B2B) marketing differs from business-to-consumer (B2C) marketing in key ways. B2B marketers sell to other businesses or institutions, which then consume the product as part of their business operations or use the product in the assembly of the final product they sell to consumers. B2C marketers focus their efforts on consumers—the individuals who consume finished products.

    Also, the marketing processes used by B2B marketers are different. One important difference is the tactic of more “personal” selling, in which a sales force builds personal relationships with individuals in decision-making roles in order to facilitate sales within the organizations they’re targeting. Also, because B2B sales tend to be higher-priced, larger-ticket items, marketing tactics often include extensive adjustments in factors such as the selling price, product features, terms of delivery, and so forth.

    In the context of ethics, there are some important challenges that are unique to B2B marketing, too. These are discussed below.

    The Challenge of Monitoring Ethics in B2B Marketing

    bananarepublic-300x224.jpgImagine that Banana Republic, the retail clothing store, wants to launch a new promotion with a significant price discount. Banana Republic sells to consumers, which makes it a B2C company. Before the promotion is announced, the corporate marketing team will analyze the pricing discount. The Web site design for the promotion will be throughly reviewed. If this is a new promotion, the legal team will evaluate and approve the official language. The display materials that are sent to stores go through the same review. The marketing team will craft communications for the sales associates in stores around the country, explaining the promotion and scripting how it should be presented to shoppers. It is possible that the marketing team at Gap Inc., Banana Republic’s parent company, will also review the promotion—or they may have provided a “promotion template” that’s been reviewed and approved. For a B2C company selling to a large consumer audience, pricing is fairly uniform for all buyers, and the marketing and legal teams typically review the pricing strategies and communications.

    In a B2B sales environment this process is very different. Imagine that a sales representative from Microsoft comes to your college campus to meet with technology leaders about a new software package for student communications. She might meet with the college’s chief information officer over lunch and discuss the college’s current products, as well as the new software package she is hoping to sell. When the discussion turns to price, the sales rep will try to present the right price to close the sale. She will be thinking about what the college has already purchased, what else she hopes to sell to the college, and how she might “bundle” this product to drive the largest total sale. She will also care about the timing of the sale. Does she want the college to buy the product this year or this quarter in order to maximize her commission? That will make a difference in whether she presents more aggressive pricing now or tries to create a larger deal that may take longer to close. The individual sales rep has significant discretion in crafting the right deal. Often the company’s sales leadership will not have visibility into the details of this deal until she is well into the sales process, and the legal team will not review it until it is in a formal contract that the company is preparing to sign.

    B2B sales processes generally have fewer controls than B2C processes for a number of reasons:

    1. Personal sales are relationship based, requiring the seller to tailor the process according to the buyer’s personality and approach
    2. B2B sales are often large and complex, which necessitates personalizing the marketing mix to the individual buyer
    3. Pricing is negotiated between the buyer and seller, rather than being set and uniform across all customers
    4. Communication about the product and pricing takes place mainly through informal or formal verbal presentations and discussions

    The B2B sales process is difficult to monitor and control. It is also very high stakes. There are approximately 320 million potential consumers in the United States. There are just over 5.7 million firms doing business in the United States.[7] B2B firms market to a much smaller number of customers and are often selling products with a higher total cost.

    Structural Challenges in Personal Selling

    The challenges of creating appropriate controls in the B2B sales process places special pressure on the individual sales representatives to make good judgment calls in a very flexible environment. In addition, personal selling almost always uses an incentive structure, which puts immense pressure on the sales rep to close large deals.

    Often a B2B company will spend approximately 20 percent of its total revenue on sales costs, with a significant portion of that paid out in commissions. In other words, if a company buys a software package that costs $1 million, as much as $200,000 will be paid in sales commissions. This is generally distributed through the sales management chain, such that an individual sales rep is paid a commission on his sales, and a sales manager is paid a commission on the sales from all of the sales reps that she manages.

    Let’s look at an example of a commission plan and consider how it might impact ethical judgment calls during the sales process.

    Amount Sold Sales Quota Commission Percent Commission Paid
    $500,000 $1 million 0% $0
    $1 million $1 million 10% $100,000
    $1.5 million $1 million 15% $225,000

    Each salesperson has an annual sales quota that he is expected to meet—in this case, $1 million in annual sales. On top of a base salary, sales representatives are paid a commission on their sales. Often, either no commission is paid (as in this example) or a very low commission is paid until the sales quota is met. Once the sales quota is met, the sales rep earns a percentage of all sales. In this example, if the rep sells a $1 million deal, then he will meet his quota and be paid a $100,000 sales commission. There is also an accelerator: If the sales rep sells more, he will earn a higher-percent commission. B2B sales representatives have a personal financial stake in closing deals.

    Besides the financial incentive they face, sales reps are also motivated to meet (and exceed) sales quotas because they don’t want to get fired (which is a pretty common, legitimate worry).

    Let’s revisit the scenario above where a software sales rep is on your college’s campus. Will she act differently if she is approaching the end of the year and has only closed $800,000 in sales? In that case should would not have met her sales quota for the year, and both her compensation and her job would be at risk. She might be tempted to oversell the features and benefits of the product this one time in order to close a sale before the end of the year. She would also be more likely to advocate for steep pricing discounts that might bring the price of the software right to the $200,000 she needs to meet quota.

    What if she has exceeded her quota but needs a few big sales once the new year starts? In that case, our sales rep might be tempted to slow down a sales deal in order to push the sale into next year. While that doesn’t present an ethical dilemma for the customer, it does create an issue for the company. If an employee is purposely reducing the company’s sales this year in order to profit, does that constitute ethical behavior?

    Companies understand and expect that the sales compensation structure will influence behavior, but they try make adjustments that lead to smaller ethical issues (slowing down a sales process, e.g.,) rather than larger ethical issues (promising value that the product cannot deliver, e.g.). B2B marketers must carefully consider the sales-compensation and incentives structure and identify where it creates unnecessary ethical risks or puts sales reps in an ethical bind.

    Diverse Policy Requirements

    Finally, while all marketers are required to be aware of state and federal laws that impact their work, B2B marketers must also understand the procurement policies of the organizations to which they sell. The policies and guidelines can vary significantly. Company policies will generally define:

    • The total purchase authority of a single individual or department
    • The threshold at which a purchase decision must go out for competitive bid
    • The circumstances under which the company’s status as a customer can be disclosed
    • A dollar threshold for gifts from vendors

    It is the responsibility of the employees within the company to follow the policies, so why does this matter to the marketer? Let’s return to the example of a software rep selling a product to your college or university. The chief information officer is responsible for understanding and following the college’s policies. Still, the software company and its sales rep are in a position to conduct sales and marketing efforts that either respect and support the college’s policies or push against them. Even when issues arise from the vendor’s ignorance about the college’s policies, such lapses can create a tone in which the vendor is seen to be undercutting the college’s requirements instead of understanding and supporting ethical behavior.

    Gift giving in business is commonplace and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an advertising, sales-promotion, and marketing-communication medium.[8] Such gifting is usually practiced for the following reasons:

    1. In appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.
    2. In the hopes of creating a positive first impression that might help to establish an initial business relationship
    3. As a quid pro quo—returning a favor or expecting a favor in return for something [9]

    Making good decisions about when business gifts are appropriate is extremely complex in the United States. In global marketing it becomes one of the most challenging ethical issues, since the cultural norms in other countries can be at odds with standard ethical practices in the United States. For this reason, gifts and bribes warrant a deeper discussion, especially with regard to B2B marketing.

    In considering appropriate business gifts it is helpful to think about the content of the gift, the context of the gift, and the culture in which it will be received. Let’s examine one of Microsoft’s promotions that included a gift.

    Case Study: Microsoft’s “Gift” to Bloggers


    When Microsoft introduced its Vista operating system, the launch included a noteworthy promotion. During the 2006 Christmas season, Microsoft sent out ninety Acer Ferrari laptops, loaded with Windows Vista Operating system, to approximately ninety influential bloggers.

    Different bloggers received different machines, but the lowest model was worth around two thousand dollars. Michael Arrington, editor of TechCrunch, shared the message that accompanied his gift:

    This would be a review machine, so I’d love to hear your opinion on the machine and OS. Full disclosure, while I hope you will blog about your experience with the PC, you don’t have to. Also, you are welcome to send the machine back to us after you are done playing with it, or you can give it away to your community, or you can hold on to it for as long as you’d like. Just let me know what you plan to do with it when the time comes. And if you run into any problems let me know. A few of the drivers aren’t quite final, but are very close.[10]

    Clearly, Microsoft was hoping to encourage reviews of Vista and wanted to make sure that the bloggers experienced Vista on a high-end machine that would optimize performance. Did they also hope to influence the bloggers’ opinions of the company along the way?

    Sending the gift to bloggers was a risky marketing tactic even without the ethical question. Culturally, bloggers are a highly influential group of people with strong opinions, which they share openly to a wide audience. Many of the recipients reacted to the gift by sharing the news of the promotion and their opinions about it. A broad range of ethical issues emerged from the surrounding discussions in the blogosphere. Below are several excerpts.

    The Gifts Diminish Trust in the Reviewers

    Now that I know these guys (any gals?) have access to a tailored laptop, preloaded, etc., I know their wisdom is no longer that of The Crowd—I suspect it is going to be tainted (even if not the case), so I have already discounted them. And, since I don’t know who has and has not had the gift, I will distrust them all on this subject![11]

    The Laptops Provide a Review Experience That Will Not Match Users’ Experiences

    If you’ve ever tried to add a new Microsoft OS to an existing computer, you know you can’t do that without totally f****** up your computer. The only way to switch to a new Microsoft OS is to start with a new computer. And, of course, to wait a year or two while they get the kinks out. Microsoft wouldn’t chance having dozens of bloggers writing about how VISTA screwed up their computers, so they installed the system on brand-new computers. They gave the computers as gifts instead of lending them to the bloggers for review, which is the norm when dealing with traditional journalists.

    The Bloggers Should Disclose the Gift in Their Reviews

    Microsoft’s approach raises some problematic issues . . . How many bloggers have received a notebook but have not declared it on their blog? Quite a few, I suggest, which highlights the fundamental problem with blogging, which is that bloggers are not trained journalists and not necessarily in tune with the ethical problems that gifts entail . . .

    Finally, sending bribes to bloggers is not a good look for Microsoft, and this is exactly how this initiative will be perceived. Even as they try to defend themselves, Microsoft’s PR gurus show that they do not understand the blogosphere.[12]

    Another blogger shared the disclosure concern while supporting the promotion:

    That is a GREAT idea. After all, how can anyone have a decent conversation about Windows Vista without having put a bunch of time on one of the machines? Now, regarding blogger ethics. Did you disclose? If you did, you have ethics. If you didn’t, you don’t. It’s that black-and-white with me. [13]

    While there was not a clear consensus on the ethics of this promotion, the debate drowned out whatever little positive opinion Windows Vista had generated in the blogs. The Microsoft case stands as a good example of a business gift program gone wrong. The company not only wasted the money spent on the gifts (none of the bloggers reported to have returned the laptops) but suffered weeks of bad press—and soured the commercial launch of the product.

    Three Dimensions of Evaluating Gifts

    The Microsoft example provides a three-dimensional framework by which to evaluate whether a gift crosses the line into bribery. (Remember that a bribe is something given to induce someone to alter their behavior—in this case, to write a favorable product review.) The framework helps establish guidelines for keeping business gifting aboveboard.


    The chief problem with Microsoft’s gift was the content. Content refers to the nature of the gift itself (a shiny, new, top-of-the-line laptop) and the price ($2,000 or more). The company claimed that such a high-end machine was necessary to showcase the full capability of the Windows Vista operating system. And, they asserted, since the bloggers were given the option of returning the laptops (or giving them away), the issue of bribery didn’t come into play and the onus of acting ethically fell to the recipients.

    Nonetheless, Microsoft’s actions represented a departure from standard industry practice of sending preview disks of software to opinion-makers. While it might be acceptable to give out $2,000 gifts in other industries (like sending out expensive fashion clothing to movies stars), and one can dicker about whether $2,000 is or isn’t too extravagant, the point is that Microsoft broke with the conventions of its own industry.

    The key lesson is that what is being given defines the nature of gifting, and extreme care must be taken to determine whether that gift is appropriate. While the market price of a gift item can be used as a benchmark, the type of gift is as important as its price. If Microsoft had given out $2,000 worth of software, it wouldn’t have been so controversial. Another point, which Microsoft surely knew, is that items sent around Christmastime are more apt to be perceived as gifts.


    The other objection to the Microsoft gifts was the company’s motives for giving them. People argued that Microsoft sent the expensive laptops to bloggers as a quid pro quo. Though the accompanying email said “you don’t have to write about Vista,” that was mainly a legal disclaimer meant to protect Microsoft against formal bribery charges (U.S. corruption law prohibits corporate gifts designed to induce action by the recipient). The company may have kept itself out of legal hot water, but it remained vulnerable to the charge that it tried to exert psychological pressure on the bloggers to write about their “pleasurable” experiences with Vista.

    The other argument was that laptops were given to the bloggers so that they would lack the proper testing environment of mainstream tech journalists. The bloggers were set up to write good things about Vista by seeing it function in a brand-new machine, tuned and tested for this purpose by Microsoft engineers. The experience of actual users—who might be influenced by these bloggers’ opinions—would be different, since they would have to install the software on older machines with no help from Microsoft. Critics argued that the company’s promotion was intended to create a false opinion of the market.

    While most businesses define what is a bribe and what isn’t in terms of the content of the gift, in most countries the matter is decided on the basis of context. So, regardless of the size, type, and value of the gift, if it can be established that the gift was given with the intent to induce an action, it will be regarded as a bribe. The lesson here is that it isn’t enough for businesses to set clear value/type limits on corporate gifts; it’s also necessary to scrutinize the motives behind the gift giving, think carefully about how the gift will be received, and stop short of anything that induces the recipient to crosses the line of ethical behavior.


    Other critics held that Microsoft’s blunder was not caused by the content or context of the gifts but that the company fundamentally misunderstood the culture of blogging. This view came primarily from marketing practitioners, who pointed out that giving the laptops to elite bloggers violated the egalitarian and sponsorship-free nature of social media. It’s a culture whose members loathe any kind of commercial taint to their independence and are highly sensitive to charges of “selling out.”

    Thus, culture is clearly the third very important aspect of gift giving. It’s crucial to establish clear boundaries and protocols so that gifts are truly received as gifts—not as attempts to influence. To do that means factoring in the recipient’s mindset and culture, since what may be perceived as a gift in one group may seem like a bribe in another. The “cultural” dimension is easily understood in personal gift giving (a toy truck might be an excellent present for your six-year-old nephew, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for your boss or grandparent). Yet, somehow the idea of discretionary gift giving hasn’t gained much ground in business. However, understanding the cultural preferences of the receiver is obviously an important issue in international business—and was a key failure.

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