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? Recycling?
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 initiatives.
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.
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. The 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 thing.
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.
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.
Larry Light is chairman-CEO of Arcature, a management consulting company that advises companies on how to create, build and manage brands. Previously Mr. Light was global CMO of McDonald's Corp.