Making marketing and sustainability two sides of the same coin

Brands and marketing are so powerful that they get blamed for many of society’s troubles today. The ills of capitalism. The destruction of the planet. The perversity of globalisation. The shame of over-consumption.

marc mathieu

This blame is a consequence of being powerful but the truth is that brands also have the power to make positive change.

They have the ability to rally millions of people behind a story, cause or belief bigger than themselves. Marketing can understand people, identify their needs, invent stories and shape behaviours – creating popular culture along the way.

Think about the great brand icons. Coca-Cola, Disney and even the nation of America have shaped our world with their stories involving polar bears, Mickey Mouse and the American Dream.

In contrast, the notion of sustainability isn’t particularly powerful. As a concept, it is complex, difficult to understand and sometimes disengaging. People can’t see what is in it for them; it’s for the other people to care about. They think it’s an issue for governments or the businesses that caused the problem in the first place. That it’s a problem for the Chinese, Indians and Africans, who shouldn’t want or expect to live and consume like us in the West. (Yeah, right.)

Yet we know that if we are to survive as a human race, to flourish and thrive for generations to come, then something has got to give. Something has got to change.

I don’t believe in less “consumption” as the answer. But I do believe that if, as social media strategist Jeremy Waite puts it, advertising has “encouraged us to buy stuffwe don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like” then, marketing and brands can be used to help us do things we really need, with resources we can manage, to impress people we should care about – the children of tomorrow, the generations to come.

So here’s my question. Can marketing and sustainability, instead of acting as competing forces, become two sides of the same coin?

Can brands become real forces for good, beacons of positive change? And can marketers be the architects of a new culture where a great life and a sustainable lifestyle become synonymous?

Imagine if we pursued sustainability not alongside marketing but at its core. Imagine the effect we marketers – as a profession – could have on society.

Every day, we hear of countless organisations and governments trying to tackle the problems of our world. But fundamentally, the solution lies in the hands of the billion people across the globe who have to change the way they live. And therefore as experts in behaviour change, in the power of persuasion, the solution lies in our hands too.

More than ever, our brands have an opportunity to play a positive role in people’s lives that extends far beyond the functional role they play as a product – to help them deal with the struggles in their lives in ways that really matter.

Some brands are born with a purpose, some have found theirs along the way and some are still searching. Or not. But by finding a purpose, by tapping into those fundamental human needs – the hopes, the fears, the anxieties – of the people they serve, by helping them cope, address and resolve some of the challenges that society faces, brands have the power to create the change we need.

In fact, few things are so uniquely positioned to alter society, so primed to change habits and lifestyles as are our brands. And as their guardians, we simply cannot sit by and ignore this.

We must lead this change, as we once did. Our profession was built on the backs of a few great men. Men who built brands that embodied progress and possibilities – and hope – for a better future, a better life, for today and generations to come. Without a doubt, these men understood that brands are powerful conduits of change.

William Lever made branded soap available in Britain at a time when diseases were widespread. He brought hygiene to the masses. He improved lives by taking a small action that made a big difference to society. Henry Ford did the same with cars. When people wanted faster horses, he designed them the Model T.

Now is the time to shift public consciousness and help us all believe in a future where sustainable living can be commonplace. The skills and tools at our disposal – ironically, the very same tools that we get criticised for – can unlock a more sustainable future.

It might sound daunting, but start by thinking small. How can your brand help people do one thing differently? Small things like how they wash their hands, turn down the thermostat or get more exercise. Small actions, multiplied across hundreds of brands, dozens of countries, billions of times each day, can make a big difference and have a massive positive effect in a way that very few others can.

Marketers were built for this, trained for this. We now have an opportunity to serve society in a way that we haven’t done since the very beginnings of our profession.

We stand at a crossroads. For the first time in a long time, marketing has the opportunity once again to make a mark – to better our society. Let’s not let it go to waste.

Marc Mathieu is senior vice-president of marketing at Unilever, and responsible for developing the company’s global marketing strategy Crafting Brands for Life.

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