Can sustainability get marketing out of its short-term fixation?

Pick up any good text-book on marketing, attend a strategic marketing seminar or webinar, download a podcast or sign up for a marketing qualification or MBA.  One thing becomes rapidly clear: that marketing is concerned above all else with ensuring that the organization will have a profitable future.

Consideration of PEST (political, economic, social, technological) factors, gathering data on future trends, understanding customers and competitors, preparing SWOTs (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and developing brand positionings and strategies are all concerned with long-term considerations.  Everything that marketing practitioners do should, and in the best companies does, flow from this process of envisioning and planning for the future.

It’s strange, therefore, that the focus for more and more people with marketing roles seems to be concerned entirely with the here and now.  Social media will undoubtedly play an important role in the panoply of channels that marketers have at their disposal into the future, particularly because of its two-way nature. But the current obsession with the ephemeral minutiae of conversations with potentially vast numbers of customers, with often little attention given to their relative importance to the organization, risks tying up huge amounts of capital and human resource – which is also money.

There cannot be a bigger elephant in the room right now than sustainability issues such as climate change, growing water and food shortages, population growth, etc, with the implicit need for the planet to consume less in the future.  The economic crisis seems all-encompassing in its impact on company strategy and tactics, which cascades into marketing priorities and crowds out consideration of the longer term.  Ironically, the greater crisis in this longer term perspective – sustainability – may offer solutions to the economic crisis.  Some organizations, such as GE and InterfaceFlor have made exactly this connection.

The game-changing shifts in strategic direction towards greater sustainability that are taking place in a growing number of companies and industries – witness the faltering early steps that the car industry is taking – provide marketers with what seems to be an increasingly rare opportunity to engage at a more strategic level in the organization.  But other disciplines, frequently unaware of the function and skill set of well-trained marketers, are making inroads into areas that marketing should make its own.

Many sustainable initiatives have stumbled and failed because their proponents have lacked insight into the marketplace and customer, or due to an inability to create viable positionings for brands that incorporate sustainable considerations, or to create compelling propositions that integrates a sustainable message appropriately with other benefits.  These are the basic skills that any good marketer should have experience in.

Marketers must raise their game, but in so doing so can acquire both new skills and influence within the organization.  They need to grasp the implications of mega-trends beyond the economic recession and begin to factor them into their plans; understand how consumer expectations of how companies should behave are changing; get up to speed with best practice in the world of sustainability; begin to understand the whole supply chain and product life cycle; work much more closely with other functions such as CSR, supply chain management, procurement, corporate communications, finance, etc.; and above all learn how to integrate the sustainability imperative into brand strategies and planning.

Sustainability represents both a huge challenge to business, but also significant opportunities for the leaders.  It also represents a major opportunity for marketers wanting to acquire the skill set necessary for performing successfully in the very different landscape we are entering.  Those that grab the opportunity will have the enormous satisfaction of fulfilling the intrinsic promise at the heart of the marketing philosophy – of driving the organizational strategy.  Those that don’t risk continuing to operate in a function that becomes more and more fixated on the short-term, the tactical and peripheral.

About David Whiting

I help organizations to create competitive advantage, build brands and develop new opportunities, in particular by aligning sustainability understanding with customer insights
This entry was posted in The Challenge for Marketing, Understanding Marketing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Can sustainability get marketing out of its short-term fixation?

  1. Pingback: 8 sustainability musts for marketers | sustainabilityneedsmarketing

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