Marketing can drive the major shift we need for sustainable business

When it comes to tackling the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges, leading thinkers believe that a major shift in business is indispensable. Yet many believe that progress has stalled.

Who can be surprised? Are things really going to change in a corporate universe where $600bn (£370bn) a year is spent convincing people to keep consuming? Where the rising middle classes of India and China are mirroring the unsustainable consumption habits of the west and the ad industry is in lockstep with them?

I have had the great good fortune to be a mole in the mighty marketing industry over the last three decades. As CEO of J Walter Thompson Canada (JWT) I oversaw the creation of a social change practice a decade ago dedicated to helping companies, brands, NGOs and institutions be more effective in defining their social change missions, strategies, priorities and actions. This work touched on a broad spectrum of needs and issues: environmental, social, cultural, educational and health-related.

For the past 18 months I have been building this capability and way of thinking in JWT worldwide. I have wanted to do this work for a long time since I have always believed that as business goes, so goes the world. I also believe that JWT is a remarkable laboratory and agent of change. After all, it has been developing pioneering ideas, many of them social, for 150 years and now operates in more than 90 countries. The agency has a portfolio of famous brands and a network of strategic and creative talent in touch with consumers – and powerful clients – everywhere.

What I’ve learned from this vantage point is sobering. In terms of sustainability and social leadership, business is at a crossroads; a moment of great opportunity and significance. For it to truly change I believe there must be a major breakthrough in the very thing that created modern consumerism in the first place: marketing. And, regrettably, it is largely ill-prepared to deliver.

Let me explain. When I say marketing, many people think advertising and communication. Marketing is much more than that of course; it is fundamentally understanding the needs and wants of people and responding with ideas, products and services that exceed their expectations. It is all about understanding and serving, and some would argue creating demand.

Since the second world war, marketing has been a massively successful engine in driving growth and consumer behaviour and the birth of hundreds of thousands of brands worldwide. It is a methodology, if not an ideology, that has informed the shape of societies and has been embraced at a rate and scale that would be the envy of the most ambitious of Bolsheviks.

On the other hand, for more than 20 years the sustainability movement in the corporate world has been, by necessity, almost entirely supply-side driven, far removed from marketing. By that I mean companies have, first and foremost, been attempting to adjust the way they operate.

Supply chain, production, emissions, labour practices, waste and water. Many people feel that there have been some encouraging signs of progress. And yet the corporate sustainability movement is not moving all that fast; certainly not as fast as the press clippings and many corporate websites would lead you to believe. Nor do I think it ever will until a fundamental adjustment takes place in the way companies approach sustainability and social change. That adjustment is to recognize and actively address the demand side of the equation; the demand that people – customers, employees and consumers – have for real social leadership. For new, bold, enduring ideas, programmes and products that engage and inspire them.

And to meet this demand companies need marketing. And marketing is not up to it.

Peter Drucker once famously stated that marketing along with innovation were the most vital aspects of business and that all else was a cost. Unfortunately, while there are some impressive exceptions among marketers and companies and no lack of effort to correct things, marketing has simply slipped over the last decade or more. It has lost its prominence at the corporate table, it is dominated by short-term pressures and expectations in organizational structures where sustainability is usually someone else’s responsibility.

In the next instalment, I will elaborate on why marketing is in this bind and on the emergence of a true marketplace of social change. A marketplace where the demand is global, deep and weaponized.

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