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Role Of Marketing In A Sustainable Future

Updated: Dec 14, 2021


For years, exploitation and consumption of natural resources by humans have led to issues such as climate change, air pollution, waste production, and loss of biodiversity. Not addressing these issues will cause irreversible damage to the environment and could adversely impact the survival of future generations. The United Nations has made 17 goals to achieve sustainability, some of which are responsible consumption and production, gender equality, climate action, good health and well-being (United Nations, 2015). These goals call for immediate action by companies, governments, and people towards acting more sustainably.


Sustainable marketing is a branch of marketing, which, according to (Martin and Schouten, 2014) is “the process of creating, communicating, and delivering value to customers in such a way that both natural and human capital are preserved or enhanced throughout”. Similarly, (Belz and Peattie, 2009) define sustainable marketing as “planning, organizing, implementing and controlling marketing resources and programmes to satisfy consumers’ wants and needs, while considering social and environmental criteria and meeting corporate objectives”. Both definitions highlight the purpose of sustainable marketing in preserving or enhancing the natural environment and human capital; however, Belz and Peattie also give importance to achieving corporate objectives with sustainable marketing.


This essay will highlight how sustainable marketing efforts, along with its two sub-disciplines, social marketing, and green marketing, can contribute towards a sustainable future. Through examples, it can be understood how successful sustainable marketing efforts lead to a reduction in consumption, provide access to more sustainable products, change behavior in a society, and generate additional wealth for companies. Lastly, this essay will underline various benefits and drawbacks that companies might face by conducting sustainable practices.

To achieve sustainability goals in the long term, society needs to act together and take steps towards a sustainable future. Marketing could play a critical role in communicating creative and powerful messaging to bring behavioral changes in society. Two sub-disciplines of marketing (Gordon, Carrigan, and Hastings, 2011) that could be used to accelerate sustainability and sustainable development are social marketing and green marketing.


Previous studies by (Kotler, Zaltman, 1971) define social marketing as the theory and practice of marketing an idea, cause, or behavior. To achieve a sustainable future, social marketing could be used to promote consumption and demand reduction. In the recent past, there have been a considerable amount of examples that show brands’ success in promoting their sustainability ideas and efforts. Below are a few examples discussing key learnings on how social marketing can promote sustainable behavior in society.


Several cities worldwide are impacted by air pollution. Research by (Huang, 2012) on the Chinese tourism sector has found every 1 percent increase in air pollution could lower tourist arrival by 1.24% and adversely impact the tourism and hospitality sector, which highlights how serious impact air pollution can have on modern economies. Madrid happened to be among those cities facing high levels of air pollution in 2017. To tackle this issue using public policies and social marketing, the city council of Madrid implemented plans to reduce the number of vehicles on the road by motivating people to use car sharing services and reduce carbon footprint (Cohen, 2018). Similar to the way social marketing played an important role in motivating people to start adapting to concepts like carsharing and consumptions reduction in Madrid, the “Truth Campaign” that ran between 1998 and 2003 in Florida influenced youth not to smoke by making them aware of the reality of the tobacco industry and how millions of dollars are spent on the marketing of tobacco products to deceive young people (Peattie and Peattie, 2009). The Truth campaign adds another perspective to social marketing and its behavioral impact on people. It argues that instead of marketers telling the targeted audience what to do, they need to emphasize what the reality is and why the change is needed.


Public policies can also define boundaries in which both businesses and consumers operate. By implementing demarketing strategies to drive demand reduction, governments could combat the scarcity of resources. For example, to tackle chronic water shortage, one local government in California had to use a demarketing strategy to reduce the water consumption of industries and consumers (Kotler, 2011). As suggested by (Kotler, 2011), demarketing campaigns can be useful in combating energy waste, overfishing, and obesity, along many other issues hindering sustainable development.


Marketers also have an opportunity to rethink the four Ps of marketing and adapt to the concept of the circular economy - which is a model of production and consumption involving the sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling of existing materials and products as long as possible (European Parliament, 2015). By rethinking the four Ps of marketing, brands could develop biodegradable & reusable products in a local production facility, price it as per its level of environmental friendliness, and promote it online to reduce waste and carbon footprints (Kotler, 2011). An example of it would be IKEA, a Swedish furniture maker. It uses 60% renewable and more than 10% recycled materials to produce furniture and aims to make its products 100% circular by 2030 (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, n.d.).


While maximization of profits & economic return remains the universal value of many businesses (McDonagh, Prothero, 2014), it can be suggested that integrating social and environmental value in business propositions can future improve the overall performance and profitability of a business. Research conducted by (Menon and Menon, 199; Andries and Stephan, 2019) have found that sustainability is a key driver of innovation. For instance, if businesses were to challenge the conventional ways in which humans operate by introducing innovative, environment-friendly technologies, then such an initiative would open new markets that never existed earlier and open up doors to generate additional profit (Nidumolu, R. et al., 2009).


Tesla, an electric car company that is revolutionizing the automobile sector, is a prime example of turning a market gap into an opportunity through innovations that could resolve significant environmental and sustainability concerns. Conventional road vehicles run on fuel, which causes air pollution and noise pollution, whereas Tesla’s unique value proposition is its electric cars, a green alternative to conventional vehicles. Having an electric car could be a dream for many, but one of the key concerns that make it difficult for consumers to adapt to it is the lack of infrastructure to recharge the car. Tesla identified this as an opportunity and developed a vast network of charging stations in the US. Doing so led to huge initial fixed costs but the company worked upon solving key pain points that prevented consumers from opting for electric cars over conventional cars. Tesla rolled out its Model 3 in 2016 that turned out to be a huge success; the car has received 400,000+ pre-orders to date (Lobo, 2020). Tesla’s unconventional offerings have been widely accepted in the market. Its success can be attributed to the fact that in the quest of making the world more sustainable, companies can ultimately create new markets. One key learning from this example is that Tesla worked upon three pillars of sustainable marketing consisting of environmental responsibility, social engagement, and economic success (Elkington, 1999). This helped Tesla to create capabilities leading to higher profits and a unique advantage over its competitors.


Past research suggests that consumers are now aware of the impact of unsustainable business practices. As stated by (Kotler, 2011), “consumers today carry new concerns, doubts, and fears. Will they keep their jobs? Can they save enough for retirement? Will the road traffic get much worse? Will the air get more polluted?”. Such behavior indicates a rise in sentiment towards the need for products and services that would lead to a sustainable future. This could also be one of the reasons why Tesla received such a welcoming response from the public on the launch of its first electric car. To address the concerns of its consumers regarding the sustainable conduct of business, Unilever built a marketing campaign: Project Sunlight, a short film highlighting examples of sustainable efforts exercised by Unilever. Senior Vice President of Marketing Marc Mathieu stated, “We want to use the Unilever brand as a trustmark for sustainable living” (Vizard, 2013). Such integration of values based on sustainability in core beliefs of a brand could help nurture stronger relations with consumers who also want betterment of the society as a whole. The Project Sunlight campaign generated 77 million views across five countries and recorded 3 million website visits (Think With Google, 2014). Project Sunlight is an example underlining how marketers can use sustainable business practices to build brand image.


Also, by promoting green initiatives, brands can justify charging higher prices for their products; therefore, it’s a win-win scenario for both business and environment (Ramirez, 2013; Gordon, Carrigan, and Hastings, 2011). As outlined by (Wikipedia, n.d.), “from a popular or a practitioner perspective, green marketing refers to the marketing of products and services that are presumed to be environmentally preferable to others”. Another study by (Wymer, and Polonsky, 2015) explains there is a positive correlation between continuous sustainable production and improved profitability. Thus, if businesses conduct activities such as green marketing and sustainable production, they can charge premium prices on their products and achieve higher profitability.

It is not a secret that unsustainable business practices can lead to a backlash by consumers against a particular brand. (Kotler, 2011) says, “word of mouth is becoming a growing force in shaping consumer decisions. Consumers can be e-mailing, blogging, and tweeting to their friends and acquaintances good things or bad things about a company.” For example, Nestle received strong criticism on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter for partnering with a firm that was linked to deforestation. To save its brand image, Nestle ended its partnership with the supplier (Schwartz, 2010). As such, companies would not only get a competitive advantage by conducting sustainable practices but also avoid any outrage among consumers that could hamper the brand image.


For some brands, profit maximization is the sole purpose of transactional activities, they focus on boosting the demand for their products to increase consumption that further leads to increased sales. Even if such brands manufacture and sell green products, increased consumption would eventually end up degrading the environment (Kotler, 2011). Hence, selling green products would not be sufficient to achieve sustainability targets, unless companies also promote reduced consumption. Since marketers are the builder of sales volume (Kotler and Levy, 1971), running demarketing campaigns with the motive to reduce consumption volume can create a conflict of interest within a business. This could be identified as another drawback of pursuing a sustainable approach.


There is some evidence to suggest that businesses find a common ground where they can practice sustainable activities while remaining profitable. (Berrone & Gomez-Mejia, 2009) suggested some reasons behind such behavior: the potential for bankruptcy, fall in profitability, or possibility of letting go of profit-based compensation incentives. This limits the degree to which a business can operate outside of its profitability levels and act towards sustainability. But this study contradicts the ideology of sustainable marketing leading to higher profitability. This is because businesses do not want to resolve environmental issues that require bringing reforms in production technology or developing an environment-friendly substitute, as these activities might adversely impact short-term profitability. This explains why major car manufacturers did not mass produce electric cars, even though they had the resources to do so, whereas Tesla on the other hand focused only on manufacturing electric cars and created a new market that never existed before. So, unless brands invest more in technological reforms to increase sustainable production, they would not be able to achieve a unique competitive advantage, which would lead to higher profits in the long run.


Another drawback of following a sustainable approach could be that companies would not make financial gains as a result of their sustainability efforts because of an atomistic approach. Brands design a framework to act sustainably, but due to a lack of a holistic strategy, the end goal of their sustainable actions is not accomplished. For instance, Coca-Cola ran a marketing campaign, ‘Round in Circles,’ to make people aware of its recyclable bottles and encouraged them to recycle (Vizard, 2019). It seemed like an encouraging step towards a sustainable future; however, in 2019, while the company ran campaigns to encourage people to recycle plastic bottles in selected regions, in other regions, Coca-Cola continued selling over 100 billion single-use plastic bottles a year (Vizard, 2019). In 2020, Coca-Cola, amongst two other companies, was named as the world’s worst plastic polluter (Christie, 2020). This highlights how Coca-Cola’s sustainable acts failed to make an impact. Another example of an atomistic approach to sustainability is when McDonald’s replaced plastic straws with paper straws in the UK & Ireland, and promoted it as an initiative towards reducing plastic waste; yet, ironically, the company replaced recyclable plastic straws with paper straws that could not be recycled (Booker, 2020). In pursuit of reducing plastic waste, McDonald’s ended up taking a step back on its approach towards sustainability by promoting unrecyclable paper straws.


One more drawback to a sustainable approach is that advancement towards a sustainable future requires efforts from various industries to act together to contribute their bit. As (Emery, 2012) quotes, “the goals of sustainable products—addressing climate change issues, reducing poverty, and addressing impoverishment of natural resources, along with standard economic performance in terms of long-term market growth in a high-tech information-oriented industry—makes no sense.” Essentially, a single industry or company would not be able to work towards reversing the impact already made by humans on the environment. Lack of sustainable efforts from various industries or even governments could hamper the progress towards achieving a sustainable future. For example, the rise in CO2 emissions is a concern for many governments, but due to the lack of combined efforts to tackle this issue, CO2 emissions continue to grow (Peattie and Peattie, 2009).


To conclude, marketing is a powerful tool that could be used by companies and governments to promote sustainable efforts and influence society to act more sustainably. Companies will inevitably incur an initial spike in fixed costs due to changes in the product, promotion, or supply chain, but they should focus on long-term profitability and corporate objectives while deriving sustainable marketing and business strategies. One of the key learnings here is that a sustainable approach opens up doors to new opportunities and markets. Activities such as social marketing and green marketing give brands a competitive advantage over players in the market.


Considering the Journal of Advertising published just one paper between 1997 and 2011 on marketing communication strategies from a sustainability perspective (Chang, 2011), more recent research on sustainable marketing practices could unveil new ways in which companies can bring a change that would benefit society both environmentally and socially. Lastly, to preserve natural and human resources for future generations, stakeholders in different businesses, industries, and governments would need to act together towards sustainability.


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