The Hub

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14 September 2015

Sustainability: An important marketing responsibility

Dear Marketer,

Are you actively working on the triple bottom line (Planet – People – Profit) of your products/services? I strongly believe that this is your responsibility as a marketer.


Why is sustainability the responsibility of marketers? 

Recent Nielsen research found that more than 50% of consumers are willing to pay a premium price for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact (1). However, they need to be convinced that the individual product or service has real and relevant societal and environmental benefits, without compromising on performance. As a result, the responsibility of marketers in sustainability is both internal and external. First, they need to change the way things are done within the company itself. Second, they should focus on positively changing consumer behaviour, not only by convincing consumers about the social and environmental impact of their product (so that they buy more sustainable products), but also other – product-related – behaviour can be influenced positively.

As marketers form a bridge between the company and its customers, they need to take initiative internally by bringing customer sustainability concerns to the attention of the company. All the elements of the marketing mix offer opportunities. Consumers are, for example, concerned about whether their products are sourced fairly or whether they come from factories that use child and/or slave labour (PRODUCT). To spread the word that girls everywhere should have more confidence and should “smash the limitations of society”, P&G created the #LikeAGirl campaign (2) for Always (POSITIONING and PROMOTION). Addressing other consumers’ social and environmental concerns, Ben & Jerry’s sources all of their global paperboard packaging from forests that are managed for the protection of wildlife habitat and maintenance of biodiversity (PACKAGING) (3)C&A sells affordable clothes that are made from organic cotton (PRODUCT and PRICE) in buildings where electricity consumption is cut by innovative technology (PLACE). At C&A, they make every effort to act in the long-term interests of internal and external stakeholders, the wider society and our planet. They set priorities not only for PROFIT, but also for PEOPLE and PLANET – and they publish the results in an annual sustainability report. It is very interesting to read the 2014 report here.

Marketers should then focus on positively changing consumer behaviour by convincing shoppers to buy more sustainable products and services. I find the “les fruits et les légumes moches” creative campaign a truly inspiring example of how to change consumer habits. A French supermarket chain combats food waste by convincing consumers that unattractive fruits and vegetables are just as edible. Watch this video for a quick overview of the campaign. Product-related consumer habits can also be influenced positively. For example, Nestlé asks consumers not to boil more water than is necessary when making Nescafé Gold Blend. They have even gone a step further and teamed up with ECO Kettle, a pioneering energy-efficient kettle that takes away the hassle of measuring the exact amount of water to boil.

Marketers should become more Focused, Agile, Creative and Tangible 

Marketers need to FOCUS on their core role: improving consumers’ life. This can be done through “smart downsizing”, i.e. taking away from a product everything that is not really necessary. Furthermore, focus brings simplicity; it gets away from the hyper-choice consumers are confronted with. An example is Aldi, where consumers can do their weekly shopping faster because the choice is more limited. Many existing trends offer opportunities for AGILE marketers to take the initiative in promoting sustainability internally and externally. However, not all existing trends can be exploited as such by marketers; for some, a solid dose of CREATIVITY is needed to define new ways of working, as well as to tweak or even sometimes radically change the business model. And, finally, TANGIBLE marketers, i.e. marketers who take a strong, analytical approach, understanding the implications of what they can do with all 3 Ps, instead of 1 or 2, and creating appropriate KPIs to track progress. These are the people who will be able to build robust cases for their initiatives. As a side benefit, tangibility will eventually protect them against the accusation of greenwashing.