What’s Sustainability got to do with Marketing?

Many marketers believe that sustainability has little to do with them: probably more so since the financial crash and now the global pandemic.  There are many reasons that this should be so. For a start, as with marketing itself, there is a tremendous confusion over terminology and its use, which serves to cloud understanding of sustainability amongst marketers.

Another reason is that the history of ‘sustainable marketing’ is not one to celebrate for the most part.  In the late ’80s and early ’90s many brands were launched on a green platform, but far too many were cynical exercises in jumping on a bandwagon, offering little of value to consumers.  Others, launched by entrepreneurs, were too worthy in nature and lacked insight into consumer needs.

There followed a trend for cause-related marketing activity, which became confused with CSR (corporate social responsibility) (itself embracing a wide range of interpretations).  At best, some of these activities were very worthwhile in themselves, but were too often tactical and short-term in nature and had little to do with strategic brand considerations.

Later still, as companies began to integrate understanding of growing concerns over such issues as climate change into their thinking, misleading claims began to be made about peripheral initiatives that were unrepresentative of overall behaviour.  Shell’s notorious claims about using waste CO2 to grow flowers (which was declared misleading by the ASA because only 0.325% of its CO2 waste was used this way) is a case in point. Shell is still under attack for making hypocritical claims to this day.

This tendency towards the tactical and opportunistic has been reflected above all in the accusations of ‘greenwash’, originating back in the 1980s, and still continuing. They have led to a further reinforcement of a negative perception amongst the public of marketing as a profession and a fear amongst marketers of being accused of over-claiming.

In recent years more and more companies have begun to take account of corporate responsibility issues in their planning.  Larger organizations have significant compliance considerations, many companies are seeing efficiency gains and cost savings from energy, waste and water initiatives, and assessment of supply chains is having impacts both environmentally and socially.

Marketers have tended to regard such considerations as the responsibility of a CSR or supply chain function, however, and little to do with the development of brand strategies (with the sometimes exception of the corporate brand).  Typically, sustainability issues are seen as being concerned with compliance, production of the annual report, corporate communications to shareholders and analysts, etc.

Even where companies have made impressive gains in becoming more sustainable, and relevant processes exist for capturing appropriate data, marketers are often unaware of the potential opportunities that such developments represent for innovation and brand building.  Yet marketers should be driving these changes.

A significant, but related problem is that of the diminishing role for marketing in many organizations.  In such companies marketing is regarded as being responsible for marketing communications activity and little more.  The concept of marketing comprising a much broader and more strategic ‘marketing mix’ is having to fight a rearguard action.

Finally, marketers are – to a significant degree, understandably – preoccupied with managing their brands in a difficult economic climate, whilst getting to grips with a plethora of digital and social media, a torrent of data, the arrival of artificial intelligence, etc.  The more far-sighted may see, however, that these very issues are harbingers of a substantially different landscape in which their brands will have to compete in future, of which sustainability is an integral part.

A growing number of organizations are beginning to drive sustainability considerations into the core of their business strategies and recognising the pivotal role of marketing and brands.  Companies such as Marks & Spencer, GE and Unilever have found ways to define themselves in terms of sustainability for over 20 years, but it is now widely being seen as “part and parcel of corporate success”.

Two trends illustrate the centrality of companies taking a genuine sustainability road.  The first is the growth of the BCorps movement, which has spread beyond its US heartland, involving a certification process.  This has resulted in a network of purpose-driven companies that use business as a force for good, and includes brands such as Danone, Ben & Jerry’s, Method, Ecover and Patagonia, as well as UK brands such as Ella’s Kitchen and Pukka.

The second trend is the advent of brand purpose as a concept to describe those brands that have incorporated a higher purpose into their positioning (rather than seeing it as a tactical campaign).  In many instances this is no more than an alternative badging of sustainability, and many companies that attempt it fall flat on their faces, but as well as powering the success stories of many FMCG brands owned by Unilever and Procter & Gamble, it is providing a guiding star to companies such as Starbucks.

Marketers’ lack of familiarity and involvement with sustainability issues, and their potential for realising innovation and new sources of competitive advantage, is likely to severely disadvantage the majority of companies as they try to compete against these sustainability leaders.  That same lack of involvement is also likely to seriously impede the career progression of many marketers as other disciplines take over this critical strategic area that they have neglected.

Further discussion of this topic is welcomed.

Check out the ‘How to’ resource library for a comprehensive range of documents relating to the preparation of marketing plans, as well as the practical and conceptual issues surrounding their preparation and role within the organization.  The resources include some downloadable templates and guides.

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