Many – both within and without the world of sustainability practitioners – would doubt that marketers had much to add to the advance of sustainability within organizations and society. Yes, no doubt their promotional skills can be harnessed to generate some publicity for a new initiative – perhaps in the form of a clever slogan or a social media campaign. The idea that a marketing mindset could be the primary driver for a successful sustainability strategy would no doubt be alien to someone with such a viewpoint, however.
However, the publication of the latest Globescan/SustainAbility report on the results of a regular survey of nearly 1,000 global sustainability experts would appear to demonstrate that there is a strong link between the leading sustainability companies and the application of strategic marketing. 10 of the top 12 leading companies that the respondents believe have most successfully integrated sustainability into their business strategies are consumer goods manufacturers or retailers. The household brands – in the markets where they compete successfully (many of them globally) – include Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Marks & Spencer, Patagonia, Nike, Puma, IKEA, Walmart and Natura.
These companies have built successful brands on the basis of the application of strategic marketing: understanding consumer/customer segments, creating powerful and motivating propositions, fulfilling those propositions by continuing to offer relevant and desirable products and services, and communicating to their customers in relevant ways. This is not the strategic approach of much of industry, particularly in sectors such as financial services and much of the business-to-business world.
It is precisely this ability to remain close to the changing needs of the marketplace, and the developing aspirations of their customers, that have no doubt enhanced the ability of these consumer-facing businesses to embrace the opportunities and demands of sustainability, however. Knowing how and where to incorporate sustainability into brand communication is also a critical skill. It is no coincidence that the two most important drivers in advancing sustainable development principles over the next 5 years, chosen by the sustainability experts, were competitive pressure and green consumerism.
The company that is regarded as being streets ahead of even the other admired sustainability leaders, however, is Unilever. Its launch of the brave and pioneering Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 has set a benchmark for all organizations aspiring to become sustainable, rather than playing little more than lip-service, which is the default strategy for so many. The aim of Unilever’s strategy is to double the size of the business, whilst halving its environmental footprint, by 2020. This is a company with marketing in its DNA, the owner of a huge portfolio of successful household brands worldwide, which it is using to drive the sustainability programme.
Any successful marketer must think long-term (contrary to the completely misleading impression created by many of those operating in the silos of digital marketing, concerned primarily with the immediate comment or tweet) and Unilever’s marketers are required to think more long-term than most. But making positive contributions towards society and improving people’s lives require that.
Not every business has a Paul Polman (Unilever’s CEO) at the helm, but the blueprint now exists. To build sustainability into the heart of the business strategy does not require the organization to be consumer-facing (and the two remaining top 12 sustainability leaders, Interface and GE, are not). The mindset of strategic marketing is, nevertheless, a valuable and vital component in ensuring sustainability success.