Sustainability Sits Best under Marketing in Many Cases

A company’s sustainability strategy is best delivered through the marketing department, according to Unilever’s new chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed .

Many people that I know, simply disagree with this perspective.

  • Marketing according to many has been the cause of of fueling unsustainable consumption patterns and the use and throw culture.
  • Another very valid argument against marketing is that, unethical companies can simply get away by savvy marketing instead of making genuine changes towards sustainability.

It is no accident that the 20th century saw marketing departments as the primary communication interface with the consumer. The proliferation of media around us highlights the role of the communication industry that has largely been responsible for consumerism and its many benefits as well as ill effects.

I believe that this important role of marketing is still driving and will continue to drive change towards sustainable consumer behavior. While unethical companies can definitely use marketing to ‘green wash’ their way into consumer hearts, it is still a very short term business strategy.

I want to draw your attention to a WWF report called ‘Let them eat cake – Satisfying the new consumer appetite for responsible brands’. Instead of preaching about the moral responsibility of business to further the goals of sustainability, this report exposes the considerable commercial potential of a new approach to business, based on the provision of more “responsible” mainstream brands.

While this is nothing new, it is a very interesting report that puts the role of marketing firmly where it belongs – at the heart of the sustainability solution. Marketing has been accused of fueling unsustainable consumption patterns and I would argue that the solution too lies in marketing. While this perspective may have many takers there is much to be debated whether ‘sustainability sits best under marketing’ ?

While there are many criteria to be considered, in my view, one of the fundamental perspectives is that of ‘the nature of the organization’.

The role of marketing has to be one of ensuring customer choice in your favour. Depending on the nature of your products and services as well as scale, the role of marketing needs to be considered objectively.

If you are a company, that does not manufacture anything, but instead provides services to end consumers. You would largely be dependent upon suppliers. In such a situation, sustainability led supply chain management as well as consumer marketing would play an important role. Many retailers would fit into this category and so would telecom companies. In India, the telecom industry is the second largest emitter of CO2 after the Indian Railways. Cause marketing is a very critical part of the telecom industry in India and in rest of the world. M Pesa – Vodafone’s pathbreaking telecom solution and other applications by many other industry leaders are being used to drive social change. Mobile services, broadly termed as, mHealth, mLearning, mBanking rest on product design but are fundamentally fueled by marketing.

If you are a company that manufactures products, sustainability would form an integral part of the manufacturing function. But, the role and importance of marketing would depend on whether you are a B2B or a B2C company.

If you are a B2B manufacturing company consumer marketing may have a limited role as you may need to communicate to a finite customer base. Outsourced manufacturing units, industrial goods and infrastructure companies would fit in here. Companies like GE through their ecomagination initiative have made sustainability an integral part of business strategy and designed around it ground up. While at the same time they have promoted this initiative to stakeholders across the world .

If, you are a B2C company, consumer marketing may become important to drive behavior change and product preference for large number of customers. Unilever falls into this category, and builds on the need for a predominant role of marketing with roots in sustainability. Unilever has been working on a consistent long term approach of redesigning their business around sustainable products. Marketing has been used as a fundamental tool to communicate with consumers once the product is ready to show tangible consumer benefits yet fulfilling sustainability values.

The WWF report builds the perspective of Brandscape, Brainscape and Behaviour.

  • Brandscape is the map of brands in our society. It is a combination of the products and services themselves, their prices, advertising, logos, design and functionality.
  • Brainscape is the collection of beliefs, values and motivations of individuals.
  • Behaviour is expressed by brands and consumers. It both affects and is affected by the other two dimensions: as people learn from their own behaviour, they change their own attitudes, beliefs and expectations.

The marketing function acts as a conduit between these three dimensions. Not only does it influence and partly define the brand package as experienced by consumers; it also measures the physical and emotional responses of those consumers in order to innovate.

To drive change we need to communicate better.

However, if your marketing sells products and services that violate sustainability values and practices, no matter what the marketing department says and where it sits, consumers will not buy and the role of marketing will become increasingly subservient to sustainable values.