The spread of ‘green’ issues into the mass market means clients and consumers will be looking to marketing to spread the word for ethical consumerism, says Jules Peck
No matter how you might choose to explain the bumper crop of Conservative councillors in last week’s local elections, there is one thing that cannot be denied: David Cameron’s environmental epiphany (Lexus-based faux pas aside) won him considerable political capital. Public concern surrounding global warming, health and social breakdown is now at such a level, it can make or break political careers. Having “socially responsible” credentials seems to be a vote winner; but is it a money-spinner?
In Let Them Eat Cake, a new report from WWF on the relationship between marketing and sustainability, it is demonstrated that social responsibility is indeed a potential money-spinner. And most chief executives seem to agree that to ignore the environmental and social impacts of their businesses is to risk damaging their reputation, which could potentially cripple their brand for years.
Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Marks & Spencer and a host of market-leading brands have begun to introduce sophisticated systems to reduce negative social and environmental impacts. Those who work in product design, corporate responsibility, office management, manufacturing, investor relations, and public affairs now consider environmental, social and ethical performance as essential to their business.
Lead us into temptation
So what about the marketing community? After all, one only has to flick through the pages of this magazine to know that the marketing industry is under fire for a host of alleged environmental and social issues: fuelling unsustainable patterns of consumption; encouraging binge drinking; filling us full of salt, fat, and empty calories; depleting scarce water and biological resources; using too much packaging; limiting the useful life of products to fuel earlier repeat purchases. The list seems never-ending.
The United Nations and other industry outsiders have tried to explain to the marketing community why they should embrace the principles of sustainability in their marketing communications. And a few senior figures from the industry, including Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton, and Bartle Bogle Hegarty chairman John Hegarty, have made efforts to move the debate forward.
So far, though, progress has been slow, largely because the impetus for change has come from outside the industry. It has been left to a few small players, such as GoodBrand, Clownfish Marketing and Good Business, to make the running.
Contrary to received wisdom among most marketers, the majority of consumers prefer brands that are environmentally and socially responsible. A recent Guardian/ICM poll is one illustration of a shift in societal values that marketing needs to tune into. The poll showed that 51% of consumers had boycotted a company because its products damage the environment, and 63% approved of a “green tax” to discourage behaviour that is harmful to the environment.
Whether or not you choose to believe such attitudinal surveys (and there are many others offering similar insights) there is no ignoring the success of a host of “sustainable” brands that have made the jump into mainstream markets.
The global market for organic food and drink has grown from almost nothing ten years ago to an estimated $25bn (&£13.4bn) in 2005. In the UK, 50% of baby-food sales are now organic. In the US, sales of organic products have been growing at 20% – ten times the pace of the conventional food market – generating an estimated $15bn (&£8bn)in sales in 2005. Nor is our appetite for organic products limited to food; this year in the UK, Marks & Spencer and Oasis have launched clothing ranges made from organic cotton, the demand for which considerably outstrips the available supply.
Deep shifts in societal values have also manifested themselves in a range of other trends reported in the press over the past year, including “downsizing”, “mass luxury” and “localism”. These trends, along with the often suppressed but very real concern shared by consumers and marketers alike over environmental and social issues, represent a golden opportunity for brands.
While a poor social/environmental/ethical reputation may not yet be enough to put the average shopper off the latest must-have item, it leaves many brands vulnerable to competitors with a more responsible image. In fact, it will not be long before all brands have to be perceived as having “responsible” policies simply to survive in the mainstream.
However, as sustainability moves from niche to mainstream, glitzy advertising campaigns that focus purely on environmental and social issues are unlikely to motivate ordinary consumers. Moreover, such attempts are likely to expose advertisers to accusations of “greenwash”. Instead, brand owners must tune into these shifting societal values and learn to incorporate sustainability into their brand, offering consumers reassurance that it’s OK to buy their brand, without overloading them with technical details.
Having recently undertaken discussions with over 50 leading figures from the marketing industry and a Web-based survey of over 300 brand and marketing professionals from both the client and agency sides, WWF can identify practical ideas on how to release the commercial potential of this new zeitgeist.
It is interesting that although communications professionals believe they have a strong influence on consumer behaviour, they are not held responsible for the environmental and social aspects of that behaviour. Clients are just beginning to screen agencies for their sustainability credentials, but clients and agencies lack information about consumer attitudes to environmental and social issues.
So what might brand owners and marketers do? They could start by learning both their brand’s and their customers’ relationship to sustainability and integrate corporate social responsibility into marketing and other functions. They need to innovate and encourage customers to join them on the brand journey they are taking, as they tune into and spearhead shifts in values.