If greenies want to make a difference, they need marketers

IChris_Grannelln this guest post, Chris Grannell argues that sustainability fails when it doesn’t embrace the marketing world

Marketing and sustainability ought be an item, but they still eye each other with mutual suspicion. At the back end of 2010 I met with a highly experienced marketer who dismissed sustainability as niche, uncommercial and (though he didn’t say so out loud) somewhat threatening. This thinking is dangerously outdated, but it’s regrettably not unusual.

Marketers are generally uneasy about green while those concerned about sustainability are inclined to be downright dismissive of marketing. Why?

For marketers, the trouble with sustainability is that it is big and serious. It’s been described as “not leaving a turd on the lawn for your grandchildren to pick up” – a funny line but clearly a sobering subject. Its significance is on an altogether higher level than next month’s new product launch. This makes marketers feel inadequate.

For greenies on the other hand, marketing is commonly regarded as the amoral capitalist beast, encouraging people to consume more of everything without a second thought about the collateral damage they may inflict in the process.

The planet-sized scale of green issues makes it easy to think that a mere commercial discipline like marketing can be of little help. It also makes it easy to slip into thinking that green is a threat to be managed rather than an opportunity to be developed. Wrong on both counts.

The imperatives of sustainability and the skills of marketing can – and must – work together.

Consider the following facts:

  • Green products which remain obscure and niche have little direct effect on global human behaviour
  • Green products which have made it into the mainstream tend to be those which offer more than saving the world
  • Companies can use green to create new sources of revenue and cut costs

The insight behind these observations is simple. Green may be important; it may even be the most important thing ever. But it’s also a social shift like any other – and it presents challenges and opportunities that marketing is uniquely positioned to address.

Let’s not forget that marketing is all about customers: Getting close to them, understanding their issues, persuading them; and it’s also about competition and rivalry. Sustainability is about influencing these same customers, following their changing demands, getting ready for what’s around the corner. And – guess what – it can also help firms get one over their competition.

Past generations of green failed to achieve mass-market penetration precisely because of their lack of marketing nous. With one or two exceptions, twenty years of green products failed to speak to a critical mass of customers or work in alignment with markets. Without a healthy dose of market-based thinking, these products (however well intentioned) were never going to be ‘sustainable’ in any sense of the word.

Remember when green products were difficult to use and delivered dubious returns? Then look at a product like the Prius. Notice what is happening here? The benefit is not just low emissions; it’s also about becoming a the sort of person whose car makes a dramatic statement, about not having to get your hands dirty at petrol stations as often, and about having a funky little computer to watch on the dashboard. Look away, think about the green movement ten years ago, and then look back at the Prius. Ten years ago green was all dried lentils, beards (not the funky creative director kind) and sandals that certainly weren’t Birkenstocks. Today, well-executed green can be both popular and premium.

Reflecting on the success of green products which have actually changed behaviour on some scale, only marketing can make sense of what’s going on. Getting corporations to think about green in terms of consumer benefits versus consumer costs can be quite a revelation: Early in the piece, ardent greenies will go for green no matter what; other customers need help to jump on board. Then, as markets begin to mature, the ability for green-ness to make up for reduced performance diminishes. Later still, commoditised sectors can be revitalised with the addition of a green proposition. We can all think of examples from mature categories – from electricity retail to automotive to cosmetics – where firms have created premium products from ‘green’ or renewable associations.

And so to the capitalist part of the relationship. With one or two exceptions, no one can expect companies to invest in activities that don’t deliver commercial returns. Fortunately, corporate greening (when executed with due care and attention) can deliver significant monetary gains. These typically come in terms of new revenues, reduced costs, and improved asset values both on and off the balance sheet.

Recently I’ve had the good fortune to work with a particularly market-savvy environmental NGO which shows every promise of using marketing – and the latent opportunity of the concerned consumer – to change behaviours. I’ve also been involved with a variety of commercial organisations – from clean tech innovators to established businesses – which are turning green into gold. These organisations remain unusual, but indicate a growing trend.

Marketing and sustainability are edging closer. Marketing is beginning to eye some of sustainability’s serious assets – not to mention some of the friends she seems to be acquiring. And sustainability is beginning to find marketing’s understanding of consumers more than a little attractive. Damn it, this could be useful after all.

Green zealots (who are content to save the world in wonderful isolation) don’t need marketing. For those who actually want to make a difference, marketing is essential.

Chris Grannell is consulting director at strategy agency Ellis Foster McVeigh


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