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Marketing’s Sustainability Challenge

The world is changing thanks to climate change and marketing has to play its part.

Whatever category or sector you are in, the drive for greater sustainability will affect every aspect of what you do. It’s not just down to governments; businesses also have a vital role to play to achieve net zero, from reducing emissions within the business and value chains.

From now on businesses need to make profit but also protect the planet, often dubbed the double bottom line. That means making sure we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

The role for marketing and communications is to ensure that they are enabling consumers to make more sustainable choices, when it comes to product and service selection.

Of course, in 2022 few brands are simply about functionality and marketers also need to find a way to align with social values in order to succeed. For many consumers, sustainability, purpose, diversity and inclusion are becoming increasingly critical in determining whether they select a given brand.

Recent research from CAP Gemini found that 79% of consumers are changing their purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact.

What’s critical for marketers to understand is that tackling sustainability is different from purpose. Purpose campaigns might have sustainability benefits but that’s certainly not always the case and initiatives should be distinct.

Reassuring customers will be a key challenge for marketers in 2022 and beyond. The function sits at the crossroads of business functions and, in some companies, can influence issues such as product innovation and packaging by bringing greater understanding of consumer expectations and demands to disparate teams.

Taking the right actions to do so requires CMOs to address three key areas.

First, they need to ensure authenticity while also finding a way to stand out on this issue. Sustainability is everywhere and businesses are being expected to communicate their commitments.

Delivering success means messaging based on facts and truth. Marketers and their agencies need to resist the temptation to embellish and make sure to only communicate the truth. Not telling the truth or “greenwashing” will not only erode trust among consumers but could also leave brands at risk of regulatory disapproval. In the UK, both the CMA and ASA are clamping down on greenwashing. Being on the wrong side of the rules could cause serious reputational damage.

Secondly, they need to work hard to measure improvements. How to quantify progress on sustainability? A recent WARC study states that 25% of marketers cite sustainability as a “general goal” rather than employing specific metrics.

Marketers need to find a way to communicate the company’s progress by making clear public commitments to improvement. This could mean signing up to independent schemes such as Ad Green or the WFA’s Planet Pledge.

Finally, businesses need to go beyond their own four walls. Real sustainability means not just achieving net zero in your own operations but also in the whole supply chain. The biggest difference is made when there is a collective effort.

Again, delivering on this means joining independent schemes like Planet Pledge that commit to developing a net zero supply chain, putting carbon neutral criteria in your RFPs and working with media partners to ensure that distributing your messages doesn’t add to the world’s challenges.

It’s certainly true that net zero may require some companies to re-engineer much of their businesses and marketing is merely a small part of a huge cultural and physical upheaval.

Communicating what is being done, and why, remains a critical part of the function.


First published in WARC

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