Prejudice: the great destroyer of future value

Why is it so hard for humans to accept the implications (or even the likelihood) of the future being very different from the present?  We grow weary of the arguments of climate change deniers, whose ever more vehement claims that 97% of climate scientists are wrong, continue to provide a drag anchor on vital international regulation.  Much as Captain Smith believed that propelling the ‘Titanic’ at full tilt into an ice field was a good idea, or South Africa’s National Party’s faith that apartheid was a viable long-term system for organizing society, the current certainty within much of the US Republican Party (including, of course, the President) that climate science is wrong is consigning them to an historical collision with reality.  The apocalyptic fires in Australia seem to have resulted in little or no shift in its government’s lack of action, and support of fossil fuels, despite ever more vociferous protests.

The inability to comprehend

574px-Thomas_Wyke-_Thames_frost_fair

We have all been told by intelligent acquaintances that climate change is nothing new, whilst giving apparent proof of this – e.g. “the Thames froze over in Victorian times after all”.  Such views seem to be in decline, but what is so often lacking is an ability to grasp both the enormity of the issue and the timescale involved; instead, there is a belief that we have experienced all this before.  In 2013 the CO2 level in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm – up to 415 in 2019) for the first time in 3 million years, which is well over 2 million years before Homo sapiens emerged on the planet.  The fact is that the planet itself is not at risk – it has “experienced it all before”; we certainly have not and it is the risk to us (and much of the ecosystem) that presents such a colossal challenge.

The future belongs to that younger generation who accept the reality of climate change; many of us may live to see the climate change deniers fall flat on their faces, but the older we are the easier it perhaps is to ignore the appalling implications unless we act faster.  As the great economist J.K. Galbraith commented “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof”.

Envisaging a transformed future

Whilst the likes of the Koch brothers and Exxon have continued to lobby Congress against climate change legislation, and to fund pressure groups, there are fortunately a growing group of global and large national businesses orientating their long-term strategies around an understanding of a very different future.  Similarly, a number of smaller companies are devising strategies that reflect an understanding of a changed world.  But they are still comparatively few in number, whilst whole industries – such as fossil fuel producers, and the banks that fund them – fight a rearguard action.

Many companies, and indeed whole industries, seem congenitally incapable of raising their eyes to the horizon and envisaging a transformed future.  For instance, most of the processed food industry in the UK has fought for years to prevent the introduction of a consumer-friendly standardised nutritional labelling system, despite the research evidence about obesity and childhood IQ impacts piling up.  At the same time, whilst levels of fat, salt and sugar have been reduced in some products, there has been a seeming reluctance to envisage, and to lead towards a different future, by most producers.

Can marketing step up to the plate?

There are important implications for marketers here.  ‘Proper’ strategic marketing is concerned with understanding what the future is likely to look like and to develop strategies and plans that ensure a long-term profitable outlook for the organisation.  This is a world away from the short-term, transactional, sales focus of much marketing activity that embodies the commonly held understanding of the discipline.  Yet marketing – as it has been understood in more enlightened and successful companies for the last 50 years or so – should be the driver for the development of more sustainable strategies.

Marketing possesses a number of planning tools that exist to help organizations devise strategies that reflect a more accurate understanding of the future.  The most common of these are the PEST (or PESTLE) and SWOT analyses.  The former requires practitioners to look at the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental factors that exist beyond the organization’s own immediate markets (with its consideration of customers and competitors) that might nevertheless have an impact on those markets.  The SWOT analysis requires an examination of the company’s strengths and weaknesses in comparison to competitors, but also, more pertinently to this piece, an identification of the key threats and opportunities that are deemed to exist over the long-term planning period.

A diligent marketer, working for a forward-thinking organization, would be identifying the sustainability factors that will have an impact on the company, its brands, customers, suppliers and competitors, and developing appropriate strategies.  This requires the critical ability to diagnose what is really happening, and likely to happen, rather than lazily extrapolating from the past, adhering to the market groupthink or allowing prejudice to guide decision-making.  Unfortunately, as Kieran Levis commented in a  piece in the Market Leader journal a few years ago, “We’re much more impressed by coherent stories than statistical evidence, so a compelling narrative will always trump confusing facts.  These intellectual shortcuts make us vulnerable to groupthink, halo effects and, most dangerously for executives, enormous over-confidence.”

The criticality of the task and the size of the opportunity could not be greater.  But marketers must step up to the plate – the future of their brands, their companies and stakeholders depend upon it.  Even more importantly, so do future generations, including their own children.

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