Sustainability and Marketing

Sustainability and Marketing

In recent years, the concept of sustainability has become a major part of marketing and branding campaigns. With the ‘millennial’ demographic becoming increasingly savvy consumers, demanding that companies should uphold high ethical and environmental Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) standards, it would appear that it is essential that businesses adopt sustainability marketing as an integral part of their business models, to maintain a trustworthy and credible relationship with their customers and the public at large. Indeed, sustainable business practices not only appear to benefit society and the environment, but can also benefit the businesses’ financial profitability.

In a 2017 study commissioned by Unilever, who are behind products such as Dove soap, with their Real Beauty campaign, it showed that consumers proactively seek companies and brands that are known for their sustainability credentials.  

According to the study, worldwide, there is a market worth around US$2.65 trillion, creating more than $1 trillion in market opportunities for companies that can proclaim their sustainability credentials effectively.

Indeed, following the mass deregulation of industries, and privatisation of former government assets that occurred since the ‘80s when governments became more neo-liberal, consumers have been increasingly looking to companies to ‘lead the way’ when it comes to social and environmental issues, rather than to governments.

Consumers then ‘vote,’ with their support for companies who adopt ethical and environmentally friendly strategies. For example, the Body Shop, since the ‘70s, has been actively campaigning to ban animal testing on beauty products, a cause that has finally been realised relatively recently, with laws being passed to ban animal testing in Australia in 2017, following similar laws being passed in Europe.

In the international Unilever study, it revealed that more than 21 per cent of people  would choose products from companies that reveal their sustainability credentials on their packaging and in their marketing, as they would ‘feel good,’ when choosing products/brands that are known to be sustainable. It is interesting to note that in the UK, 53 per cent of consumers in the UK, and 78 per cent of consumers in the US stated they would ‘feel good’ after buying sustainably produced products, while in India, 88 per cent of consumers would feel similarly, and in Turkey and Brazil, 85 per cent would be happy purchasing sustainable products.

Certainly, it would appear that although only a fifth of consumers worldwide prioritise sustainability as a factor when choosing a product, sustainability marketing seems to be an upward future trend in marketing campaigns, particularly as consumers grow more concerned about their impact on the environment.

Thus, for businesses to be serious about Corporate Social Responsibility, it makes good business sense to incorporate sustainability into their own business models, as consumers seek out businesses who have a proven track record in sustainability, and actually avoid companies who appear to have unethical marketing campaigns.

Unilever’s chief marketing and communication officer Keith Weed stated that brands must demonstrate their environmental and social credentials, to prove to consumers that they are trustworthy and committed to helping communities and the health of the planet, as well as their financial stability.

Companies who fail to respond to sustainability trends, especially with women demanding diversity in body images being represented in the media (such as with ‘plus size’ models, and corresponding clothing products) quickly fall out of favour with consumers. For example, in the US, Victoria’s Secret has experienced profit losses, with less women buying their products, as well as plummeting TV rating for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, when women consumers have decided to ‘switch off’ on seeing images of women that are not diverse, and therefore against the socially conscious, sustainability marketing ethos. Certainly, plus size model Robyn Lawley recently led a boycott against the brand, with the #WeAreAllAngels hashtag, for failing to represent diversity in shapes and sizes of models and their products.

In addition to the social aspects of sustainability, the environment plays an important factor in sustainability marketing. In the Unilever study, it would appear that consumers are interested in choosing products with sustainable business practices, as they have had exposure to companies who are unsustainable. For example, there are companies that use unsuitable practices regarding energy and water, as well as deforestation practices, and creating carbon pollution.

Indeed, Ferrero, the company behind the hazelnut chocolate spread Nutella, has been criticised for using palm oil in their products, a practice which has led to the deforestation of the environment for orangutans. An Australian alternative to this product, Nuttvia, has recently been launched and specifically uses its sustainability credentials, with its use of zero palm oil, to appeal to the more environmentally conscious consumer. It also appeals to the individual health of the consumer, with the product being 97 per cent sugar-free.

There is also the suggestion of conforming to societal pressure, when it comes to choosing sustainable products. For example, in Turkey, India, and Brazil, according to the Unilever study, consumers experience pressure from friends and family to choose more sustainable products. However, in the US, and UK this social pressure is less common, although it would appear to be growing.

Nevertheless, there still has to be three marketing benefits that are incorporated into a sustainability marketing strategy. That is,

  1. Functional benefits – with a product that is high quality, safe, easy to use, has a high performance, and claims to be value for money. For example, a high functioning Casio calculator with a solar panel.  
  2. Emotional benefits – with a product that will fulfill the consumer, and make them feel smart or attractive. For example, The Body Shop’s make-up range, that is not tested on animals.
  3. Social benefits – with a product that has a ‘status symbol,’ making a statement to the public that a consumer is a success, or ‘cool.’ For example, Toyota Prius drivers, who want to appear environmentally friendly, and modern to the public.

Thus, it is not enough to simply release a sustainability message, but to also appeal to consumers’ essential ‘selfish’ needs, as in ‘What is in it for them?’ personally. Therefore, by including the product or brand’s functional, emotional and social benefits, the sustainability message will be far more likely to be considered favourably by the consumer. This is perhaps more important in Western individualistic societies, such as in the UK, US and Australia, where consumers are perhaps more likely to consider ‘what is in it for me?’ than more traditionally collective-orientated societies.

Indeed, in light of the recent Australian Federal Election, the ALP and the Greens sought to appeal to the electorates with a broad range of sustainability issues as their main message, but perhaps did not explain ‘what was it for them?’

Thus, their campaigns ultimately did not engage the majority of voters, who appeared to be swayed by the Liberals’ ‘scare campaign,’ message, appealing to many voters’ self -interest and ‘hip pocket,’ regarding an alleged increase in taxes if Labor came to power. Therefore, the Liberals’ campaign included the ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor, in regards to their brand’s functionality, and ‘value for money,’ a vital element in marketing, particularly in individualistic Western societies. Certainly, this is a cautionary tale for brands/products that want to launch a successful sustainability marketing campaign.

Overall, as businesses grow forward into the future, it is imperative they include sustainability marketing as part of their campaign, while incorporating the traditional functional, emotional and social benefits of a product/brand. Whether it is through social media, a press release or on their packaging, sustainability marketing can certainly influence consumers’ choices when they make a purchasing decision.



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