Earlier this month, I shared a lesson on marketing that I learned from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History”. Today, lesson #2 from that same podcast.

See if any of these sound familiar:

  • I just saw the client at an event last week. It’s far too early for me get in touch with them again.
  • I send them a Christmas card every year…I don’t want to overwhelm them.
  • I played golf with them in April and we spent the entire afternoon together…they know to call me if they have any work for me.
  • I worked with them on two files this year. Trust me: I know how they feel about the firm.  We don’t need to send them a survey.
  • We had that seminar for the client in the spring. It had great attendance and we got really good feedback on it. I think that’s sufficient outreach for the year.
  • Our group has submitted two blog posts this year; let’s let the other practice groups take advantage of the publishing opportunity for the rest of the year.
  • We put out a newsletter last year. It was a lot of work.  I think we’re good for now.

I can’t count the number of marketing-focussed meetings I’ve attended where I’ve heard lawyers tout a small marketing tactic they’ve accomplished as an excuse to suspend further marketing activity.  I didn’t realize this belief system had a name until I heard one for it recently: moral licensing.

Moral licensing is a term from social psychology and marketing.  It describes the subconscious activity of feeling confidence and security in one’s sense of self (usually due to a singular action) to the point where we can’t see the consequences of subsequent immoral behaviour.  An exaggerated example might be a male boss who hires a female manager whom he subsequently sexually harasses, but doesn’t believe he’s harassing her because hey, he hired a female manager so he can’t possibly be sexist.  In other words, moral licensing is where we don’t realize we might be doing something wrong because we have the sanctimony of reflecting back on something that we believe we’ve done right.

A more marketing-related example would be when individuals feel justified in buying a luxury item because they’ve also just bought a “green” item or made a donation to a charity.  Or to make it more personal, it’s when we feel justified in eating a pizza for lunch because we skipped breakfast.

Moral licensing is based on the moral credential effect which suggests that our track record provides some sort of ethical endorsement to our future actions.   We’ve probably all have anecdotes of this occurring, but for the sake of I’ll highlight one strong example.  In 2009, Stanford University conducted several experiments that proved that Caucasian and Asian people who had voted for Obama were more likely to select a Caucasian over an African-American) for a particular job.


I believe that moral licensing exists because we want to believe that we are good people, regardless of our actions. This causes us to consciously and perhaps publicly make good choices from time to time, but I’m not convinced that conscious activity is a regular mode of operation for most of us.   This may be one of the reasons that mindfulness classes are now taught in so many schools.

In my experience as a coach, most of the time we fall back into actions based on old belief systems and habits, without even realizing we’re doing so.   Many of these old belief systems and habits are based on self-needs and ego (as opposed to selflessness and what’s best for those around us), and ease (as opposed to what may take more work).  This is the reason I push for plans: they remind us what we’ve committed to and why we are doing what we need to do.  They take us back to our original motivators and force us to act consciously – not with respect to ego or ease, but with respect to what we know we need to do to get us to where we’ve declared we want to go.

Marketing is not about a single action: it’s about a series of actions determined to take us to a new point.  Each action must be done well, and sequentially.  It’s their combined efforts that have the opportunity to make for great marketing.  A single action seldom accomplishes a meaningful goal.   So, a single action should not place us in the moral marketing high-ground and justify our failure to do the other actions needed in order to accomplish our goals.

I’ve heard stories of moments in time that define someone’s life.   A life-threatening situation that fundamentally changed someone’s belief system in their purpose.  A chance meeting with the Pope in Scotland changes the pathway for a young man who decides to become a Priest.  Singing on a street corner results in a recording contract for a teenage girl.  But let’s be honest: your client seminar, lunch date or Christmas card probably wasn’t one of those moments.  In all likelihood, a client or target will need more than one point of contact with you for you to achieve whatever goal with them you’ve set out to achieve.  Here’s a summary of how to rework your thinking on this:

  1. Stop thinking of marketing events or activities as goals. They aren’t – they are action items that collectively will lead toward accomplishment of your goals. Start by declaring your goals, then make a list of all of the action items you will undertake to accomplish those goals.
  2. As you implement on each action item, try to determine where that action fits within the list of actions required to accomplish your goals. This realization will inform your implementation.  For example, at the client event, you won’t shake hands and assume you won’t see them again for a year.  Instead, you’ll look for an excuse to re-connect with those contacts in the next few months.
  3. Once you’ve completed the action items in your plan, assess your degree of success. Did you accomplish what you intended?  Did you fall short of your goals?  If so, what do you need to do to make up for the gap?  This analysis process is critical to understanding where you are strong and weak in your delivery, and whether or not you had a sufficient number of (and the right) action items in your plan.

Here’s another thought to consider: If it’s easy for you to forgot about your marketing action items once they’ve been done, it’s even easier for your targets to forget about the value of that action as well.  We need to reconnect every 90 days in order to be top-of-mind with someone…even if they like us.

While I’ve taken liberties in application of moral licensing within the marketing context, I hope I’ve also highlighted our tendency to let ourselves off easy when it comes to marketing.   One action doesn’t get us off the hook for a proper marketing strategy.  In fact, we need to stop referring to single actions as “marketing”.    True marketing is a series of actions that follow a defined strategy aimed at achieving a declared goal.  There is no excuse for anything less.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com