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How marketing can fulfill the sustainability agenda

This post is by Jeremy Taylor, Business Director at TrinityP3 UK and Managing Partner of CONNECT2 Community Engagement Ltd, the UK’s leading community engagement experts.

COP26 was held in Glasgow in October 2021 to enable the world’s political leaders to exchange views on climate change and agree on a schedule to tackle it. It was a high profile event billed as ‘the last best chance’ for the world to control global temperature rises and reduce their resulting effects on climate.

Less coverage was given to the role played by the business world at the conference, but the impact on companies is hugely significant – big businesses will be legally required to commit to sustainable business models and report their progress annually against targets. This leads to the question – how will this evolving requirement impact marketing?

Sustainability is led from the very top

Without question, any meaningful sustainability policy has to be set at the most senior level of the organisation. The CEO has to lead the formulation of the policy and set the implementation strategy.

Sustainability policies impact every department and operating division of the company, and only the CEO can fully co-ordinate and oversee the programme.

But, setting the objectives and designing the programme to meet them is only a part of the mission. The commitment to sustainability and zero carbon emissions is a very public one and it is the public (as well as whatever regulatory bodies might be put in place) who need to be told about progress against targets.

Where does this responsibility sit in the organisation?

Corporate communications, with its traditional direct line into the CEO’s office, will play its part in formulating the language and the expression of the communication programme. They will be the people responsible for writing it up on the website and for reporting progress against targets in the annual report. They will also take on the role of communicating with many of the company stakeholders – institutional investors, shareholders, the press and (not least) employees.

If it stops there, a big hole is left in the communications strategy. How is the customer to be kept in touch with the sustainability policies and achievements of the companies behind the brands they are buying every day?

Who looks after customer communication of sustainability?

This question looks like becoming a real hot potato – an issue that gets passed rapidly from one pair of hands to another as fast as possible to avoid the risk of being burned by it. Because the downside of getting this wrong is probably greater than the upside of getting it right.

The two departments most closely involved in this will inevitably be Corporate Communications and Marketing. Both are involved in communication, but their approach can be very different.

As a general rule, Corporate Communications departments are cautious when it comes to putting out information about the company. Probably the most public-facing activity they like to get involved in for sustainability is to set up the web pages spelling out the policy, and add a few stories to illustrate it in action.

The communication strategy is to let people come and find it if they really want to, not take an active role in promoting it. It’s a passive strategy, and support for it tends to be limited to a social media team whose job it is to monitor what is being said about the policy and respond if there is a need. Escalation policies are carefully built to deal with more serious incidents of adverse commentary, and the general tone is one of damage limitation rather than active promotion.

Contrastingly, the marketing department earns its living by putting out positive messages about product and brand and encouraging customers to buy – as much and as often as possible. No wonder Corporate Communication teams tend to view the marketing department with suspicion. The instincts of the two cultures are diametrically opposed.

However. In the new world created by climate change and regulated commitment to sustainability, it is inevitable that marketing has to play a role in promoting the sustainability policy to the biggest stakeholder group of all – consumers.

How can marketing successfully communicate sustainability?

This is an issue going through its birth pains right now. The current debate about the role of purpose in marketing is only the first sign of it, and is built around the question of whether purpose (of which sustainability is now a key element) helps to build the brand and lead directly to sales – the key marketing requirement.

There is a need for the debate to be taken to another and much more wide-ranging level, with a far greater impact on communications policies. The brand and sales building impact of ‘Purpose’ messages are now secondary to the importance of simply communicating the sustainability policy and impact messages. Quite simply, this has to be done, and done well – there is no choice in the post-COP26 world.

So the debate now has to move to how it is best done, by using marketing communication skills in message formulation and media. There is a long way to go in this debate, but here are ten starter questions that need to be answered by every marketing department with great urgency.

  • How do we formulate a motivational message to consumers built around the sustainability policy?
  • Can we influence the policy, or are we just here to communicate it?
  • Does it matter that sales might not be directly linked to communicating the policy? Or is the price of failing to communicate it so high in lost consumers that it takes on commercial importance beyond direct sales?
  • Marketing is the home of story-telling for the consumer. How do we adapt this skill for the sustainability programme?
  • Sustainability needs to be demonstrated, not just talked about. What skills do we have to build programmes that go beyond reporting the policy or its progress, and actually show it in action in real-world communities?
  • Can we involve our consumers themselves beyond just buying the product?
  • Do we need to combine corporate sustainability messaging with brand messaging? If there is a need, how is it best achieved?
  • How do we work seamlessly without Corporate Communications colleagues on these issues?
  • Are the corporate values aligned with the consumers’ values?
  • Are we abiding by new industry codes and guidelines on sustainability codes?

Answering these questions should be concerning every marketing department right now. Marketing sustainability requires a different approach, a different marketing methodology, and it needs to make a difference.

TrinityP3 has the experience and tools to help get the answers right. From strategy to delivery to measuring social impact and the return on purpose.

We are green marketing leaders supplying environmental auditing, carbon offsetting solutions, carbon reduction strategy to advertising and marketing management. Learn more here

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    Jeremy Taylor is Managing Partner of CONNECT2 Community Engagement Ltd based in London, the UK’s leading community engagement experts and Business Director at TrinityP3 UK. He brings his wealth of industry experience to TrinityP3 to help our clients and agencies navigate the constantly evolving world of marketing, media and advertising.

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