Marketers need to stop talking and start doing if they are to help companies to achieve sustainability goals, according to a panel of global marketers speaking at the Festival of Marketing: The Year Ahead yesterday (19 October).
“Hand on heart, marketing could do more. Are we there already? No, but we are getting there,” said global vice-president of Evian and Volvic at Danone, Shweta Harit.
She described Danone as a company “steeped in purpose” that has made huge strides in sustainability over the last three decades, but conceded that only now is the marketing function getting close to the driving seat on that journey.
Head of global marketing and advertising at Credit Suisse International, Nicky Owen, agreed that marketing has not been driving the sustainability agenda, but added that that is “a good thing”.
“Certainly in finance you need the products in place and they are quite complicated. Credit Suisse has been working on sustainable investments for 20 years, but they have been predominantly with quite a small group of people,” she explained.
“Now we are creating products that are available more on the retail side and available to a wider audience. That is now where marketing is coming into play.”
Hand on heart, marketing could do more. Are we there already? No.
Shweta Harit, Danone
CMO of Asahi Europe and International, Grant McKenzie, explained that when it comes to driving sustainability in the company, marketing was more “following with enthusiasm”. However, he said that marketing is now moving towards the front of the pack when it comes to pushing for sustainable change.
All of the speakers spoke of the complexity of identifying problems with sustainability – which ranged from working with farmers to ensure sustainably-sourced ingredients, to choosing packaging with the lowest impact.
One challenge facing marketers is to make sure that sustainable choices, when presented to consumers, are accessible and affordable. This is not only essential to encouraging them to choose the sustainable option, but vital if brands are to help address the issues.
It is not acceptable for companies to put the onus of sustainability on the shoulders of consumers, said McKenzie.
Marketing ‘lags’ corporate progress on sustainability
“It is a huge challenge. Consumers don’t understand the difference between recyclable material and recycled material,” said Harit, recounting how Evian addressed the issue. “We took away our brand name, which I think is a very bold move, and replaced it with ‘Bottles made from bottles’.”
This project has seen the Evian name dropped from bottles entirely to be replaced by a sustainability message, as part of the brand’s commitment to achieve a ‘fully circular’ supply chain by 2025.
“We had to get to this simplicity to help this education,” Harit explained. “And there was no price increase.”
Knowing when to shut up
The panel members were united in what activities they want to see less of.
“It drives me mad when I see what I call ‘sustainability signalling’,” said Owen, who is infuriated by companies which highlight their planting of trees while continuing unsustainable operations elsewhere.
She also criticised the long-term nature of many corporate sustainability goals, such as aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050.
“I’ll be in my 70s in 2050,” she said. “The average age of brand managers is 32. They will be in their 60s. We need to take action now. Balancing the long and short term is going to be interesting.”
Harit added that she often tells her team they need to “get out of Pledge Land”.
“These massive pledges are great, as big, hairy goals. But what has helped me a lot in my work is innovation. Real, scaled innovation. Otherwise big pledges just feel impossible to achieve,” she explained.
McKenzie agreed, adding that marketers need to act first and talk later. Consumers need solutions that are easy and accessible, so that companies don’t have to make a choice between profit and sustainability, he said. McKenzie is, however, against marketers trying to put a green spin on actions that don’t warrant it.
“A lot of people have nothing to say, but they insist on saying it anyway. If you’ve got nothing to say, shut up,” he said. “This is something that sometimes, in our industry, people get the wrong way around.”