Marketers can help build a more sustainable future

Marketing for Good

A radical new approach to marketing could help curb negative environmental changes, says John Davis.

“The world is changing – it just isn’t changing fast enough,” says Dr. Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. It’s a foregone conclusion that companies and leaders today must evolve quickly if they want to survive in a chaotic world. But Dr. Hayhoe is not an expert in business. She’s a climate scientist.

According to a 2018 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the current pace of greenhouse gas emissions means that the Earth’s temperature will reach a critical threshold of 1.5oC (or 2.7oF) as soon as 2030. What happens then? We are likely to see the loss of key ecosystems, and the acceleration of irreversible damage to the natural world.

Why, you might ask, does this matter for marketing? Because the monumental change under way in the climate will directly impact people everywhere. A business-as-usual mindset is fraught with risk, because each individual company assumes its own impact is relatively minor. Yet the collective impact is huge, and we have 100 years of industrial data to prove it. Corporate decision-making focuses on minimizing exposure to risks associated with uncertain factors, compelling leaders to simultaneously protect investments and maximize measurable value creation. But with irrefutable evidence of devastating ecosystem destruction worldwide, continuing to use traditional marketing to sell the next product or service conveys a tone-deaf indifference to climate change. Thus, dramatic solutions from every business are pivotal and essential to our future. It is our collective responsibility to solve, because the absence of a fix is too catastrophic to contemplate.

The world’s businesses have a vast global reach and are far more than just commercial actors: they are leading societal actors, and that means they have a responsibility to people everywhere to create solutions that significantly reduce their carbon footprint. Businesses must stop being just makers of goods, and redefine themselves as a force for good. The global business platform is enormous, as is its capacity to solve problems, to engage people, and to create goodwill that positively impacts societies everywhere. And marketing plays a direct, vital role in this effort.

Given this, the four Ps of marketing are clearly anachronistic. I respect the marketing gurus of the 20th century who gave the discipline its raison d’être by conceiving of Product, Price, Place and Promotion, but I now just as respectfully depart from their teachings. As my research shows, the four Ps lost relevance long ago. The original dotcoms, social media, data analytics, digital disruption, political changes, VUCA, and more, have all conspired to make the four Ps a quaint vestige of yesteryear when markets were more predictable, customers had limited choice, and people were more easily persuaded by advertising messages. What should replace the four Ps?

Radical marketing

New Model for Marketing‘Radical marketing’ reflects today’s business world. For the past several decades, marketing has been narrowly defined as a communications-dominated set of activities, with a minor update about 30 years ago to embrace ‘integrated marketing’, which described the importance of aligning all marketing communications.

In my research, leaders and their organizations consistently said that their company’s reputation is their brand, and brand is the entire organization as experienced by stakeholders. Therefore, everything the organization does impacts its reputation, and marketing is a driver of this effort. In short, if you want your company to stand for something truly consequential that positively impacts people’s lives, helps solve climate change and strengthens its reputation, then making and marketing the next widget won’t suffice. How will your shareholders feel about your company when its financial performance declines precipitously because you didn’t invest in the green innovations necessary to reduce environmental impact and ensure sustainable living for future generations?

Why is this important? Because climate change is an existential threat. Fail here and your earnings per share simply won’t matter. Ninety seven percent of climate scientists agree that mankind’s activities over the past 100 years have helped accelerate climate change, disrupting ecosystems everywhere. This fundamental fact is not open for debate. If you are a denier, then you are willfully denying facts. Stop questioning the science; stop saying it is not your problem; stop investing in decades-old business practices and investments that are known to be deeply destructive; and start aggressively re-strategizing your company’s future by identifying how you can re-deploy the very smart people who work for you to collectively solve the formidable climate change challenge. You cannot escape the evidence, but you can take part in solving the problem, and radical marketing shows how.

Just as digital, social media and AI are substantially altering how we live our lives, marketing must now be viewed as a legitimate mechanism for compelling people to take action as ambassadors for environmental responsibility. Since reputation is earned from the experiences of stakeholders – and since stakeholders are customers, employees, business and value-chain partners, government alliances, NGOs and even social movements – every company has a vested interest in burnishing its reputation by fixing climate change as a core part of its long-term strategy.

Indeed, businesses everywhere have a clear responsibility to society to leverage their considerable tangible and intangible assets distributed around the world to solve this. Everyone plays a role – and we need to act now, since the scientific evidence says we have 12 years to solve our problems or we face the irreversible loss of many ecosystems required to sustain life.

Being a radical marketer means you must focus on four interconnected factors: stakeholders, engagement, solutions, and environment.

Marketing StakeholdersRadical marketing begins with stakeholders, since climate solutions must positively impact people everywhere. Most of today’s business operating structures were designed in the 20th century, born from the early days of industrialization. Business activity generated significant by-products, including rising prosperity, improved health and enhanced living conditions for many people, but the progress has been unevenly distributed, and we know that the business practices that drove these changes also harmed the environment in visible, measurable ways.

This century, company leaders face a clear, omnipresent risk from climate change, and they have a moral, ethical and fiduciary responsibility to re-align their company’s strategy to benefit all stakeholders. Targeting micro-markets of customers through data mining and predictive analytics is irrelevant if their interests have shifted from upgrading their widgets to simply surviving.

Leaders must therefore redefine their relationship with, and understanding of, their stakeholder community. This will not be easy, because most stakeholders typically have a vested interest in the status quo and have difficulty imagining new solutions. But leaders must radically refocus their solutions to support responsible and sustainable environment impact.

It can be done. For the past nine years, Sony Japan has been ranked among the top ten most reputable companies in the Reputation Institute’s annual research assessing the the top global corporate reputations. Sony’s ‘Road to Zero’ efforts to achieve a net-zero environmental footprint continue to reinforce the company’s stakeholder management emphasis.

What can you do to push your organization to directly address stakeholders? Ask the following questions of your company, your leaders, your colleagues:

1. What do we need to understand about the plausible impacts of climate change and our stakeholder community’s corresponding pain points?

2. How can each of us galvanize our stakeholders and help them, and us, make the changes that are needed?

Marketing SolutionsWe cannot wait for a perfect solution. We know the challenge: solve climate change. Therefore, your task as a leader is to help your company change and translate stakeholder insights into solutions.

Divergent 3D is a Los Angeles-based company founded by Kevin Czinger and focused on radically changing the entire lifecycle impact from each stage of manufacturing by reducing the material and energy required to produce vehicles. In a Founders and Funders podcast (February 2019), Czinger discussed how Divergent 3D is using new technologies to substantially reduce resource and energy usage, reinventing every stage of the production lifecycle, and even the concept of a factory itself. What can your company do to develop bold solutions like Divergent 3D? Ask the following questions:

1. What systemic changes must we make in how we conceive, design, produce and deliver solutions?

2. Which people and partners can help us create new solutions?

Environment is both inside and outside the company. Inside refers to how the company designs its facilities to reflectMarketing Environment the solutions and values it promotes. That might start with the business’s physical premises. Bangchak, a Thai energy company, has a corporate headquarters that is LEED Platinum Certified, demonstrating its energy efficiency, use of recycled materials and the smart technologies that minimize its carbon footprint. Outside represents how people find, interact with, and experience the company whenever they use its products or services. Bangchak customers buy the company’s green products, experience its natural lighting in service stations, and even see that the company collects rainwater for recycling. You must help your company by asking the following:

1. How do people inside see and experience us and what must we do to transform these areas to ensure we are practising what we preach?

2. How do people outside see and experience us, and what must we do to transform these areas to ensure we are delivering not just what we promise, but also what creates positive, enduring value for society?

Marketing EngagementRadical marketing means building engagement with stakeholders so that they become community advocates for your organization. A trusted community of supporters is far more impactful and influential than old-fashioned marketing communications. Aligning messages from your community of supporters with your own authentic outreach will strengthen the credibility of your engagement.

Swell is an investment firm which invests in companies that are solving the world’s biggest challenges, defined as being aligned with at least one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Swell engages its stakeholder community by encouraging them to shift their own investments, and thereby change corporate behaviour, based on how those firms directly address hugely complex global problems. The investors become advocates and catalysts for change.

The questions to ask in order to develop deeper, influential engagement are:

1. What are our compelling reasons for stakeholders to become our ambassadors and advocates?

2. What are the specific actions we must take immediately to build a highly networked community of shared interest, which uses its own outreach to increase its impact?

Urgent action

Company reputations are the organization as experienced by stakeholders – which means that all of us must practise radical marketing. This is not a job, a title or a domain. It is a call to action.
If you are queasy about becoming a radical marketer, then perhaps the words of Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old climate activist from Sweden, will compel you to act. As she said to a packed audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos in early 2019: “I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic.”

We need urgent action. Radical marketing means it is time for everyone to step up, push for massive change, and advocate for decisions that help our companies use their considerable resources and assets to fix the most pressing existential problem of our lifetime.

John Davis is regional managing director Asia at Duke Corporate Education. An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website and The Business Times.