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What’s marketing got to do with sustainability?

  • January 28, 2020 Tuesday
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Excerpts from a conversation between a consumer and a marketer that will almost never happen:

Consumer: Would you please stop putting a target on me? I am more than just a consumer.

Marketer: Absolutely! Whatever you want! Whatever you need.

Consumer: Phew!

Marketer (turns to his team): We’ve got a new target segment

‘Soulless sycophants who put a dollar sign on everything’. There is a growing discontent (to put it mildly) for marketers among a large number of ‘awakened’ consumers. My own friends don’t trust me anymore. They think of me as someone who spews out deceiving communication pieces out there to wash the minds of the ‘oh so vulnerable’ masses. As marketers, we know that this is a gross overestimation of our powers. However, while the naysayers may not really understand the inner workings that drive us to do what we do, there is a certain level of validity to the core logic in their disbelief. Throughout history, we have managed to sell some pretty incredible notions. We have enabled businesses to sell vile combinations of sugar and water as doorways to happiness. We have convinced people suffering from obesity that deep down they’re loving it. We have made people buy things they don’t need and aspire to be people they shouldn’t be. But wait! Before I get misplaced in dragging my source of bread and butter violently through the mud, I want to interrupt myself and say, ‘it hasn’t all been this sinister’. We have done good too. We’ve helped save animals from extinction, spread awareness about the harshest threats to our planet, engaged people to care about issues they hadn’t even heard of. While the success of any marketing activity will always be measured in tangible and intangible ROI, there is a shift in the fundamental approach to marketing that is beginning to take shape. We are now seeing the growing influence of sustainability in marketing and the time’s ripe for us to use our powers for the greater good.

The evolution of sustainability within marketing practices is primarily driven by ‘awakened’ consumers. Today, we all have access to a live feed of information about all that’s going wrong with the world. There is a growing interest among people to associate with people, products and brands that care about environmental and social challenges. Businesses are increasingly becoming more aware of aligning their marketing strategy, messaging and activations with its sustainability and responsible business practices. While as consumers, we are still driven primarily by factors such as price points and FOMO, sustainability is slowly creeping up as a top priority.

Moreover, even those who are not concerned with a brand’s societal and environmental footprint are turning to more purpose-driven brands due to peer pressure. In response, marketers have found some exciting ways to embed sustainability into their marketing communication and activities. From simple on-pack eco-credentials that highlight environmental or societal certifications such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Carbon Neutral, Carbon Reduction, to large-scale cause-related marketing activities that engage the customers to join the brand in bringing about a positive change in the world. Transparency is another approach that some brands are taking to build a more honest relationship with their customers. Examples of transparency include a famous Fast Food brand naming every ingredient (including the harmful ones) and an apparel retailer featuring a world map on their website showing all the locations where it has factories.

Besides implementing sustainability in existing marketing practices, marketers can use its power to drive the agenda forward. The real strength of marketing lies not in its ability to guide a customer’s journey to the point of sale, but in the ability to influence customer behaviour. If marketers could cajole people into believing in Santa Claus and proposing with a diamond ring, through effective marketing communications, we can surely encourage people to do things differently to make this world a better place. Sadly, thanks to the monumental volumes of consumer data that we have at our disposal, we focus our strategies primarily around existing consumer behaviour, while our true power of creating consumer behaviour lies dormant. There have been great examples of marketing communications driving positive consumer behaviour such as a toothpaste brand’s 30-second impactful super-bowl commercial that encouraged people to save water. However, there’s a lot more that needs to be done. More often than not, sustainability practices are communicated factually and descriptively, as businesses are more concerned with product-based messages that focus on what they do. Many don’t see the value in constructing messages that link
sustainability efforts to customer values, which leads to one of the biggest challenges in sustainability marketing – sustainability marketing myopia.

Just as an excessive focus on product attributes leads to marketing myopia, an exaggerated emphasis on its sustainability attributes over core consumer values leads to sustainability marketing myopia. It causes an imbalance in the marketing process and brands to run the risk of getting confined to a niche. The key is identifying inherent consumer values such as cost-effectiveness, convenience, health and safety, and creating a story that links these values to a brand’s sustainability initiatives. It is also essential for brands to join the dots between the core benefits of the products to its socio-ecological aspects. In other words, sustainability can no longer be a cherry on the top. We need to convey how it makes the product better and more valuable for the customer.

Most importantly, sustainability shouldn’t be looked at as just a marketing angle. We cannot show the world that we’re socially and environmentally responsible if we are not. For sustainability to be implemented in a marketing strategy, it needs to be tied to every aspect of business including strategy, human resources, finance, operations and reporting. Finally, it’s up to the marketing and communications department to complete the cycle by linking it to end consumers. Done right, sustainability strategies help strengthen your brand, build trust and encourage customer loyalty. However, businesses need to change their view on the need for an immediate ROI. In turn, marketers need to find the balance between the long-term ROI of customers that relate to your brand and the short-term ROI quick sales.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals by the UNDP set clear targets for the world to achieve by 2030. While often looked at from a humanitarian perspective, the success of the SDG’s is crucial for the long-term future of businesses across industries. Moreover, besides governments and other non-profit organisations, businesses have a pivotal role to play in the realisation of these goals. Many small and large companies have turned their focus on sustainability around the 17 SGDs. It is perhaps a prudent approach for marketers to join this movement and help businesses and customers walk together towards a brighter, more sustainable future. To many of us, this notion may seem too idealistic or even counterproductive. After all, we are programmed to be cut-throat killers (read: sales-drivers) with a taste for blood (read: conversions); but we don’t need to change that. In fact, if we have to change the world for the better, we have to be far more aggressive and creative than we’ve ever been.