Many marketers believe that sustainability has little to do with them: probably more so since the beginning of the economic downturn in 2008. 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 corporate social responsibility (itself embracing a wide range of interpretations). At best, some of these activities were very worthwhile in themselves, but were 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 is a case in point.
This tendency towards the tactical and opportunistic has been reflected above all in the accusations of ‘greenwash’, originating back in the 1980s, but continuing to this day. 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 very difficult economic climate, whilst getting to grips with a plethora of new digital and social media. 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 small, but growing number of organizations are beginning to drive sustainability considerations into the core of their business strategies, however, and recognising the pivotal role of marketing and brands. Companies such as Marks & Spencer, GE and Unilever increasingly define themselves in terms of sustainability.
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.