Marketers, Seize the Opportunity to Help Heal Society’s Ills

Advertising_age_jpegOriginally posted Nov. 12, 2007
by Larry Light, AdvertisingAge

Do the Right Thing: Motivate Consumers With Responsible Marketing That Doesn’t Exploit Trends

Consumers are waking up to the fact that sustainability is an urgent
matter. They are asking: How do I live a sustainable life? Is my health
sustainable? Is my job sustainable? Is the economy sustainable? Is my
child’s future sustainable?

Can I make a difference by changing my light bulbs? Buying a front-load
washer? Carrying my own shopping bags to the grocery? Driving a Prius?


Sustainability is the focus of so many of today’s personal, social,
corporate and legislative challenges. The Sustainability Opportunity
has big implications for brand relevance.

Into the mainstream
Healthy, wellness, fitness, fresh,
free-range, organic, natural, reduced, reusable, recycled,
biodegradable, green, global warming, climate change, carbon footprint,
eco-friendly, locally sourced — these are no longer fringe ideas.

Safeway is focusing on developing a line of organic products branded
simply with the letter "O." Wal-Mart is selling organic foods, moving
organics from Haight Street to Main Street, and is the largest U.S.
seller of organic milk. A new American vodka brand, 360 Vodka, is
positioned as the world’s first environmentally friendly vodka. 360
Vodka is packaged in an 85% recycled-content glass bottle, and all
labeling, packaging and promotional materials use 100% recycled paper,
along with water-based inks.

GE has made eco-imagination the focus of its future. The
Sundance Channel has an initiative called "The Green" with programming
and tips on eco-business, eco-innovations and eco-automotive

Jerry Powell, editor of Resource Recycling magazine, pointed
out in The New York Times, "What used to be done by a guy who wore
Birkenstocks and drove a Volvo is now being done by someone who drives
a Ford 250 with a gun rack."

What customers care about
The focus on sustainability is not
just an awesome opportunity but also an enormous responsibility. The
Sustainability Opportunity is not just about being eco-friendly or
offering biodegradable packaging or chemical-free tomatoes. Rather it
is an opportunity to responsibly respond to people’s concerns.

It does not mean marketing that confuses and confounds consumers for
quick profits with no view of what it is doing to consumers and to
society over the long term.

Unfortunately, some marketers view every development as an opportunity
for trend exploitation. As marketers, we must commit to not only
producing the right results but producing the right results in the
right way.

Some marketers, however, see an opportunity to exploit the language of
sustainability. And that’s reprehensible. Some marketers are overhyping
their communications, exaggerating consumer benefits and building
misconceptions with communications designed to confuse rather than
clarify consumer decision making.

Define ‘fresh’
For example, the language some marketers use
in the food business is being concocted and corrupted. We know that
people want fresh foods. Fresh is fabulous. But what does fresh really
mean? Does it mean freshly made? Freshly made in front of me? Made from
ingredients that were once fresh? Prepared fresh every day? What does
"packaged for freshness" mean? Some restaurants use highly processed
foods but say their food is fresh. Is freshly assembled food fresh?

And what about "natural"? Unlike organic, natural has no legal
definition. So "natural" is used everywhere, on everything from food to
drinks to dishwashing soap to cosmetics. In fact, one retailer markets
fresh, natural cosmetics. There are pretzels that are labeled
"naturally baked." Can pretzels be "unnaturally" baked?

Then there’s "organic." At least it has a set of legal rules. Consumers
think they are doing the right thing by buying organic. Rightly or
wrongly, consumers continue to equate "organic" with "healthful."
Research from the Organic Trade Association indicates organic-food
sales grew 22% in 2006 to nearly $17 billion. And it isn’t just about
food and beverages. You want healthier hair? How about organic shampoo
and conditioner?

Yet even organic can be misleading. Organic doesn’t
necessarily mean sustainable. One dairy company sells organic milk that
meets the legal definition, but the cows the milk comes from are
confined to concrete floors their entire lives. They don’t graze on
pastures, and they don’t see the light of day.

As marketers, we must become credible communicators with consciences.
When we communicate, the language we use is very important.

Nutrition guru and New York University professor Marion Nestle points
out that sometimes profits are placed above values. She calls this the
"organic-industrial complex." Her point is that business priorities
force some companies to focus on profitable growth at the expense of
responsible behavior. This corrupts the concepts and gives marketing a
deservedly bad reputation.

Some companies incorrectly assume they can focus on profitability or
sustainability but not both. Light_bulb_jpeg
Sustainability Opportunity is not an
either-or proposition. We do not have to sacrifice marketing with a
conscience at the altar of profitability.

Exploiting trends is not the opportunity. Instead, the
Sustainability Opportunity means we all have a chance to provide the
essential leadership that responsibly helps consumers do the right

Ikea’s plan
Ikea knows that doing the right thing is the
right thing to do for business and for society. Ikea has set a
sustainability objective requiring that all activities have an overall
positive impact on people and the environment. This objective affects
not only the products it markets but also store design, transportation
and store lighting. Its measurable goal is to become 100% reliant on
renewable energy and to cut overall energy costs by 25%.

Marketing with a conscience means providing ease of choice,
ease of use and ease of mind. Putting people’s minds at ease calls for
more than merely communicating truths; it boils down to creating trust.

Trust is not a result of how big we are; trust is a result of how big
we act. Truth speaks, but trust is why people listen. Consumers are
skeptical unless truth comes from a trustworthy source.

But trust in all established institutions is in trouble. Marketing is
no exception. People fear that through the power of marketing, their
control over their own behavior is being lost, or at least being
manipulated. When trend exploitation prevails over responsibly
responding to consumer concerns and desires, then it is not surprising
there are opinion-influencing critics of marketing who think marketing
is inherently harmful.

Changing perceptions
We should not be afraid of marketing’s
power. Through effective marketing, we can make a difference. The
question is: What kind of a difference do we wish to make?

The Sustainability Opportunity is a great chance to change the
perception that marketing is contributing to social problems to a
belief that marketing can be an effective part of the solution. The
Sustainability Opportunity presents us in marketing with the chance to
help people live more-sustainable lives.

Based on the famous Brundtland Report on our common future, the mission
of marketing with a conscience would be defined as "marketing that
meets today’s consumer and community and business needs without
compromising the needs of future generations." The Sustainability
Opportunity is a marketing leadership opportunity to commit to the idea
of demonstrating that effective marketing with a conscience is
responsive, responsible and profitable.

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