The misconceptions about marketing have been around for a very long time and are not about to go away; quite the reverse – they are probably growing. They are clouding the ability of many organizations to compete successfully, not least in a world characterised by a need to be more sustainable. But those same misconceptions are also hindering the ability of many sustainability practitioners and advisors to understand the pivotal role that marketing has to play in sustainable strategy development.
Businesses that are customer-focused, and use insights about the marketplace that are constantly updated, tend to be more successful, long-lasting and profitable than those that are driven by a focus on short-term sales. The concept of meeting the needs of selected groups of customers in a superior manner to competitors lies at the heart of marketing, as classically understood. This is how it is still taught at business school and in professional qualifications.
This strategic role is one that is still recognised and practised by many of the most successful organizations in the world, most obviously by the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) giants, such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Pepsico, etc. In a majority of organizations, particularly, for instance, in BTB (business-to-business) companies, most of the financial sector and the public sector, this is an alien concept, however.
Marketing has always had a problem with its conflation with sales; its more recent problem is an increasing conflation with communications, however. The responsibility for marketing communications activity is normally a vital one for a marketing function, but in too many organizations it is now the only one. The growing complexities and choices available in digital and social media have also meant that much resource is needed to deal with them.
Marketing communications undoubtedly has (potentially, at least) a vital strategic component: many brands have been built upon the success of their communications platform – historically very often in the form of a compelling proposition, delivered by a highly creative vehicle, via mass media. Much communications activity is tactical, however, and a belief that communications is all that marketing is about in any case ignores the other critical components of the marketing mix and the broader strategic thinking behind them.
The responsibility for developing insights from the broad environment, the marketplace and the customer; for segmenting that marketplace via relevant criteria; for developing a viable brand positioning; for creating innovative solutions to customer needs via new and improved products and services; and for developing strategies and plans for packaging, pricing, distribution – and, yes – communications, are all part of a strategic marketing role.
It is hard to think of another organizational discipline where there is such a wide interpretation of its role and responsibilities, nor such a confusion as to its fundamental purpose. It has to be said that neither marketing practitioners themselves, nor their professional bodies, have done a very good job of clarifying this confusion: a profound irony, if ever there was one. It is hardly surprising, however, when combined with the reluctance of most marketing people to become immersed in sustainability issues, that there is such a misunderstanding as to marketing’s most appropriate and beneficial role in sustainability development.
There is something rather depressing, but also faintly amusing, in the comments from some sustainability practitioners that observing and listening to consumers, feeding consumer insights back into the innovation process, balancing sustainability factors with other benefits in developing propositions, using the brand as the focus for strategy development, etc. are in some way revelatory discoveries. The only area that marketers are universally perceived to have expertise in is, unsurprisingly, that of persuading consumers to change their behaviour.
Until these misunderstandings are addressed by marketers demonstrating the relevance of their discipline to the development of sustainability strategies, and those working in sustainability broaden their understanding of marketing, the enormous task at hand will be held back. Fortunately, we are beginning to see in pioneering companies such as Procter & Gamble and SC Johnson, some good exemplars.