Can marketing be a force for good?
As a new wave of eco-consciousness hits consumers and countries, navigating the lines between people, planet and profits becomes more challenging for marketers.
In the past few months, climate change and plastic pollution have dominated global discourse. New laws and regulations have caused a flurry of activity on business and branding fronts. What 2019 has done, though, is put the spotlight on a new problem for marketers today; increasingly brands are getting caught in the paradoxes inherent to the idea of conscious consumption in our throwaway society.
As peak shopping season in India was about to kick off, ecommerce giant Amazon launched an influencer-led marketing campaign that urged people to discard their clothes, accessories and beauty products, and go on shopping sprees. Required criteria for a total wardrobe overhaul were ‘boring’ and ‘old’. This, essentially, is the story across categories, from FMCG to consumer durables, with skilled writers in advertising companies showing us countless ways to justify the bill after celebrations end.
Meanwhile, companies and ‘woke’ leaders across the world were joining the corporate chorus on plastic and climate change, sharing images of climate pledges, glass water bottles and bamboo straws.
What these calls to “join the movement” from across the world demonstrated was that the Greta Thunberg Effect was felt everywhere from classrooms to boardrooms. Soon enough, brands switched gears, launching several new “purpose-driven” branding initiatives - from clothes made of marine plastic to a 25-feet Raavan made of plastic waste. Eco-friendly marketing efforts are no longer limited to World Environment Day.
The Bottom-line & the Life-line
Aside from “soft initiatives”, globally, brands are finding different ways, from incremental changes to existing systems to large scale disruptive programs, to usher in change that doesn’t dent bottom-lines. For people on the marketing frontline, however, navigating the lines between people, planet and profits is increasingly challenging. The current wave of eco-consciousness coinciding with the Indian festive season exposes the problem at the heart of brand purpose and activism.
The problem is a “ticking bomb” says branding expert Harish Bijoor, as marketing is designed to create and accelerate moments of consumption for products and services, while consumption today is related to waste. Bijoor believes that “responsible consumption” will call for a total disruption in business - product, packaging, process, brand ethos and spend even - keeping in mind the changing marketing environment we are about to enter. He adds, “Marketing and marketers need to now think of three lines: the top-line, the bottom-line and the life-line.”
Professor Freda Swaminathan of FORE School of Management, believes that organizations need to develop an intellectual dimension to brand management, “to overcome societal problems that are caused by the transactional nature of marketing products and brands.” She adds that stakeholders of organizations, including government, need to be educated on the social issues that marketing raises and suitable communication norms need to be framed. The same principle of ‘fasten seat belt’ (or be fined) needs to operate in industry.
“The advertising industry can be a force to bring about smarter communications, so that brand communications meets societal needs,” says Swaminathan. “That does not mean that advertising should not stimulate the imagination of the consumer and create aspirations for a brand.”
‘The bigger purpose pitfall is benign neglect’
Going by current output, though, advertising as a force for good in the world translates into “brands who take a controversial stance on a social issue, but whose only meaningful action is to make a TV commercial or video about it,” says Scott Goodson, founder of New York-based StrawberryFrog, ‘a global cultural movement firm’.
Yet he thinks that the bigger purpose pitfall is benign neglect. “Too often a brand’s purpose ends up dormant, sitting in a PowerPoint somewhere or a plaque on the CMOs wall, but never really acted upon in a meaningful way. And in some ways, that’s not surprising, since a purpose that’s inspiring is almost by definition lofty, making it easier to talk about than act upon.”
Goodsoon and his company pioneered the approach called 'Movement Marketing' that’s designed to help brands avoid the hazards that come with pursuing purpose. An organization without purpose is more likely “an absentminded polluter.” Says Goodson, “An organization with purpose has taken the time to understand what’s important to people in their daily lives, and enables it to achieve business objectives whilst driving positive change. Without this there is more likelihood that the organization is simply driving profit or shareholder value whereas movement drives stake holder value.”
The bottom-line: Marketing can be a force for good when it initiates sustainable positive change, and using bio-degradable sporks is a respectable start.
Plastic Passions: A few recent friend-of-the-planet initiatives by brands
-Pepsi and Coca-Cola in association with Diesel, created fashion lines that incorporated recycled plastic in the fabric.
-Short-form mobile video platform, TikTok launched #IAmLessPlastic, an in-app challenge inviting users “to join the movement against plastic pollution.”
-Indian firms like Usha International and Mahindra Group launched films to highlight the problem of plastic. The latter’s #CutTheCrap campaign likens the plastic bag to weapons of mass destruction.
-FMCG major ITC launched Savlon’s Swachchata Ka Gullak, an initiative for school children to “sensitise students on the need for an eco-friendly life”.
-Chinese phone maker OnePlus partnered with WWF for their ‘Adopt A Tree’ campaign. It promised to plant a tree for each tweet with #OxygenOS. Retweets don’t count.
-Using the festive season as a backdrop, Kansai Nerolac got former Indian cricketer Sourav Ganguly to push its anti-plastic message during Durga Puja.
-Mother Dairy created a 25-feet Raavan made of plastic waste, later dismantled and sent to a recycle station.
-Godrej gave away eco-friendly Ganesha idols to customers on every purchase made at its exclusive brand outlets. The company also had a touring Raavan made of e-waste.
The Marketable Eco-friendly Movement
As pressure from people and governments mounts, and the need for urgent action to arrest the pace of environmental decline becomes more apparent, companies have no choice but to accelerate plans. Some initiatives are also highly marketable, allowing brands to curate an eco-friendly image over time.
In a bold and perhaps belated move, Burger King is gradually removing free plastic toys from kids’ meals, which has been a long-standing and highly successful incentive for fast food giants. Announced in September 2019, global CMO Fernando Machado said that “work is currently underway across all of our markets to look at how we can completely move away from non bio-degradable plastic toys by 2025.”
Unilever, the company that pioneered ‘sustainable living’ and ‘purpose-driven brands’ movement, is experimenting with refill-reuse models, new solutions in packaging and distribution, and designing deposit and rewards schemes that don’t put off customers. The company recently set up refill stations in select South East Asian markets. In Chile, it’s piloting an app-powered, intelligent dispensing system that uses electric tricycles to deliver to people’s homes. According to a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, replacing just 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives offers an opportunity worth at least $10 billion.
Danish beer giant Carlsberg has developed a prototype of a Green Fibre Bottle. The “world’s first paper beer bottle” is Carlsberg’s latest in a line-up of sustainable solutions, including recycled shrink film and greener label ink. All part of the Together Towards Zero initiative, which includes a commitment to reach zero carbon emissions and a 30% reduction in its “full-value-chain carbon footprint” by 2030. Coca-Cola recently unveiled 300 sample bottles made of marine plastic waste using “breakthrough technology”. A game-changer, if it works at scale.
Not too long after these developments, a global audit of plastic trash, conducted by Break Free From Plastic movement, found that Coca-Cola is the most polluting brand in the world, followed by Nestle, PepsiCo, Mondelez International and Unilever.
Change is coming, but at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, our glaciers are melting faster than scientists anticipated.
In a recent interview with Fast Company, billion-dollar global brand and the “ultimate do-good-and-do-well company”, Patagonia’s 81-year old founder and chairman, Yvon Chouinard summed up the impossible task of our times. Chouniard was asked, “How do we cope with the idea that to be in business means we are polluters and hurting the planet?” His reply: “Everything man does creates more harm than good. We have to accept that fact and not delude ourselves into thinking something is sustainable. Then you can try to achieve a situation where you’re causing the least amount of harm possible. That’s the spin we put on it. It’s a never-ending summit. You’re just climbing forever. You’ll never get to the top, but it’s the journey.”
Stop by Patagonia’s pop-up cafe for climate activists if you’d like to pitch in.