Talking to marketing

10th June 2013


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Nick Coad and Paul Pritchard discuss how best to engage marketers

The work of corporate environment and sustainability specialists has changed over the past 10–15 years. From a focus on compliance and risk management, work now often centres on the financial benefits arising from improving efficiency and maximising corporate reputation.

Some leading companies have aligned sustainability to their core strategy and are using this to drive new value and opportunities. As businesses pass through these phases, practitioners are required to work more closely with other functions to deliver strategic objectives.

On message

Communicating sustainability is extremely challenging and has been made harder because consumers are now deeply sceptical about corporate claims following a number of poor attempts to get the “message” across. Any assertion that is unsubstantiated or irrelevant is “greenwash”. For companies serious about sustainability, avoiding such a tag is essential. So what can you do to help avoid this?

Greenwash is rarely deliberate. Most examples are well intentioned messages that fail because of a lack of process. Environment management systems, for example, typically do not cover marketing and so such activities are out of the direct control of the specialist. As most businesses market their sustainability credentials infrequently, there may not be any formal or informal processes for working together. And, as marketing campaigns are typically developed by external agencies they can be difficult to influence.

It is important therefore that, where sustainability issues are or may be covered, environment and sustainability practitioners have an opportunity to add to the brief and then review the final outcome.

Relieving tension

One of the main reasons greenwash arises is due to an inherent tension between the approach to discussing sustainability and marketing. Sustainability professionals generally deal with complex, multi-faceted issues. For example, environment issues typically can be quantified and involve trade-offs – whether or not biofuels are good or bad depends on where they are grown and their indirect impact on surrounding land use. Marketing, however, aims to manage customer perception and typically create simple and powerful messages.

It is therefore prone to oversimplification and exaggeration. In sustainability, it is nearly always possible to highlight some positive aspect of an offering or put some feel good “recycling” messages on packaging. These are not necessarily incorrect or undesirable, but they can certainly mislead by not reflecting the most material issue.

As a sustainability specialist, it is important to be aware of Defra guidance on green claims and, if you can build some simple guidance into brand and marketing guidelines, you should avoid any embarrassment. The threat of breaching rules set by the Advertising Standards Authority can be a useful negotiating tactic.

Marketing teams may find it helpful if you are able to provide a pack of statistics and facts that can be verified – this could be linked, for example, to the annual sustainability report to avoid incurring any additional costs. A gentle reminder when a competitor or major brand runs into problems may also be a helpful way to highlight to marketing colleagues the potential pitfalls.

Overcoming hostility

Avoiding greenwash is not the only challenge faced by environment and sustainability professionals when working with marketing departments. Marketing can often be resistant, even hostile, to promoting the sustainability credentials of products. This attitude may have little to do with concerns about greenwash but more about a resistance to change or lack of insight into customers’ preferences.

Marketing will collect information on customer attitudes through surveys and focus groups, and the results obtained are highly dependent on the questions asked. For most consumers, the environment may not be a conscious concern when it comes to purchasing, so it doesn’t often feature in consumer feedback. But if they were asked specifically whether they would buy a product if it is sourced in a way that harmed dolphins or primates, the marketing department would likely get a very different answer.

The sustainability specialist needs to understand fully the methodology for collecting information on customer attitudes and behaviours in their organisation before they can enter into this discussion. They also need to understand the customer segmentation – dividing a broad target market into subsets of consumers with common needs – to see whether sustainability is, or could be, a primary or supporting element in the messaging.

Trying to convince marketers to address sustainability can be a hard challenge. Companies already seen by consumers as “green” tend not to need to sell their green credentials – as consumers preferring to purchase from environmentally conscious firms will already be buying their products, while the marketing message to mainstream consumers will focus on different issues. However, it is difficult to see how businesses that wish to become sustainability leaders can do this if they cannot demonstrate that they can sell sustainable products.

If you have a particularly challenging marketing team, you can point out that sales of green or ethical products have been resilient during the economic downturn. Sainsbury’s, for example, reported an 8.5% increase in sales of sustainably-sourced food and a 5% rise in Fairtrade products during 2012, while “green products” accounted for 45% of total sales by Philips last year, compared to 39% in 2011. And, if you need further evidence, a recently published study by the Regeneration Roadmap reveals that 66% of consumers globally believe they “have a responsibility to purchase products that are good for the environment and society”.

A sense of purpose

Mobile technologies and social media are delivering greater business transparency and more empowered consumers, and are the key reasons behind leading brands deciding to focus on developing their “purpose” – the “essence” of a company and what it wants consumers to remember. This means that sustainability specialists should find it easier to get marketing support.

There is also real evidence that marketing best practice is moving towards better alignment with sustainability. The influential Marketing Society awards for excellence, for example, now has a category called “marketing for sustainable consumption”, with judging criteria around improving the sustainability of products or processes, and aligning campaigns with the organisation’s sustainability strategy.

To explore further the issues raised in this article, join the discussion on the IEMA LinkedIn page.

A webchat involving Nick and Paul, as well as marketing professionals, is also planned. To register your interest, email [email protected].

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