Marketing’s role in building a sustainable business

Stakeholder, Strategy | Nigel Clark | 17 January 2020

Marketers are often perceived in a poor light when we talk about ‘sustainability’. Even if the claims we marketers make are true and sustainability is part of the corporate purpose, our message can still be misconstrued. But marketers have a vital part to play in building a sustainable business.   

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Sustainability, Corporate Responsibility, Zero Carbon, Green Business, Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG)….however you refer to your plans and actions to be a better corporate citizen and ‘save the planet’, I am sure your Marketing team both grins and grimaces when the topic surfaces on the corporate agenda. 

That grimace reflects the repeated accusations of business ‘greenwashing’ – companies trying to burnish their environmental credentials to project a more caring face of capitalism. And of course a Marketing team has always been seen as the chief architects of polishing the proverbial and adding the right verdant tint to the corporate message. 

Marketing and sustainability

Marketing as a discipline is also perceived in a poor light when sustainability is raised because, at a time when people are questioning conspicuous consumption and the over use of natural resources, it is marketers who are seen as the chief ‘just sell more stuff’ officers.

So even if a company has something good to say and has truly wrapped sustainability into their corporate purpose, Marketing’s involvement can raise suspicions that things are not quite as good as they seem, even if they really are!

In contrast, what marketers have consistently failed to do across the sustainability agenda is use their skills and knowledge of client and key stakeholder needs, preferences and relationships to influence positively the corporate agenda at source.

The 3 Ps: Planet, People and Profit

Thankfully, corporates can no longer play the pure ‘greed is good’ card and now need to consider all three Ps: profit, people and planet. Whether its carbon emissions, habitat depletion, plastic pollution, indigenous communities or a host of other environmental and social issues, companies are expected to understand their impact, have a vision, make a plan and take action. 

And they are no longer having to answer on this plan and action just to the environmental lobby, nor even to their local or national environmental agency or regulator. They are now responding to customers or their supply chain or their investors… people that any hard-nosed, corporate director cares about.

Who decides your sustainability priorities

Given the myriad of stakeholders and range of potential issues to address, the risk is that even if companies recognise the need now to act, their leaders worry that the agenda is too big and sprawling and cannot possibly be dealt with successfully. Certainly not while everyone is still dealing with the day job of earning an ‘honest’ buck.

The standard advice to a company’s board therefore is, as with other corporate initiatives, to prioritise a few key projects and then plan, progress and report against that small manageable set. 

But that begs the question, who decides on the priorities? Is it projects related to a firm’s biggest environmental or social impacts? But what if that strikes at the heart of their current business and profit model? Or do you jump on the bandwagon of the current high-profile topic – no more plastic straws in the canteen – but risk the challenge of not considering the full spectrum of issues and impacts? How about you pick something that is easy to deliver in the short-term rather than tackle a thornier long-term issue? But then is the low hanging environmental fruit enough to go at? So many questions!

Sustainability comes from your stakeholders

The starting point to find the right answer is not to ‘navel gaze’ and investigate the organisation, but to look out to the market, your customers and stakeholders. If you are true to being a customer-led organisation then it’s their views that should be shaping your sustainability agenda. And if your investors are looking for long-term value then they want to understand your full ESG risk profile and be reassured you have a sustainable business model. 

And this is where Marketing should be stepping in and helping the organisation shape this agenda positively. Marketers should have the tools and information to know where these issues rank in the needs and preferences of the organisation’s customers and key stakeholders. What is top of their agenda and how does that play out compared to all the other factors wrapped up in your business’ value proposition? And how do you build long-term customer relationships that respond to their primary needs, rather than scrabble to deliver low cost / low value goods that are only short-term, transactional ‘wants’.

The combination of issues and audiences may feel daunting, but a marketer’ skills in areas such as brand values, customer segmentation, needs and preferences, and value identification can all be brought into play. 

So marketers shouldn’t just sit back and grimace, but put a grin on everyone’s face by cleaning out the greenwash and stepping forward to build a more sustainable brand and business.

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