(The following post was originally published on Marketing Magazine’s Marketing Blogged blog. It has also been posted on Linguabrand’s Science and Learning section, among a highly flattering group. This is a delayed cross-posting.)
Expanding the definition and remit of sustainable marketing
When initially introduced to c-suites and boards, the allure of sustainability was that it made a certain brutal business common sense. Performance driven business leaders don’t have to love trees to understand that ignoring environmental impact will eventually kill their business: Materials and fuels will get more expensive, regulations will bear down on them and other forms of public scrutiny will become increasingly unforgiving.
Over the years, the remit of business sustainability has expanded from environmental responsibility to include other economic, social and almost any other aspect of responsible long-term resource management and social stewardship.
However, sustainable marketing has so far remained focused on the environmental aspect. It largely stands for paper sources, non-toxic inks, recycling, etc.
This is an oversight as it’s clear a large part of marketing’s impact on our society is not physical. I would like to challenge this narrow view of sustainable marketing by suggesting that just like businesses increasingly look beyond the environmental impact of resource management, marketing should do the same.
The two new elements I would like to introduce into the definition of sustainable marketing are the cognitive and the cultural aspects.
Cognitive overload is not sustainable
A lot has been said about the scarcity of attention and the attention economy. We live in an age where we’re all bombarded by messages and constantly stimulated. This happens even before marketing adds its 3000-10,000+ messages per day (estimates vary) into the mix. As a reaction, our brains have adapted by becoming exceptional at filtering out messages (unconscious) and questioning them (conscious). The implication for marketing is simple: the more people are bombarded with marketing messages, the better they will become at blocking them out completely (e.g. banner blindness), and at questioning and subverting them (e.g. as we often see on social media).
As the cognitive resistance of audiences increase, marketing which sticks to old methods, such as mass-advertising campaigns, will require more repetitions and bigger spend in order to achieve the same results it used to get.
So far, marketing has largely reacted to this fact by sending out more messages through more types of media.
It’s easy to see this isn’t sustainable: doing so only increases the deluge of messages in the world and adds to the “cognitive pollution”, further deteriorating attention resources and making people more resistant.
Increasing the number and frequency of messaging yet again is cutting the branch we are sitting on. It is not sustainable.
Cultural vandalism is not sustainable
To work at all, marketing must always remain fascinated with humanity. Strategic marketing has drawn from a wide variety of sources: from psychoanalysis and anthropology to critical theory and behavioural economics.
With such a rich variety of influences it’s rather disappointing the application of what we’ve learned is often so crass. Once marketing discovered individuals and groups can be motivated by fear, shame and guilt and react quickly to simple, emotional messages, it got into the habit of constantly pushing humanity’s emotional alarm buttons. Marketing habitually targets people’s basest instincts: telling people they are ugly, smelly, not good enough parents and generally inadequate. It parades products and services as magic solutions to an increasingly oppressed and frequently depressed audience. Marketing is shouting at them they’d be fools to miss on this once-in-a-lifetime chance for redemption.
For long, marketing has been content to push any emotional buttons as long as it got the intended response, ignoring the wider cultural and political context for needs like wellbeing, happiness, safety, money, sex or power.
But again – this isn’t sustainable. Looking back at human history – divisive, tyrannical societies driven by fear, survivalism and close-mindedness soon decline into misery and chaos.
The level of exposure and communication frequency many brands enjoy today is equivalent to that which was once reserved for kings and religious leaders. The ubiquity of marketing means we don’t only tap into meaning and emotions – we create them.
This is a monumental responsibility.
To have a future we must add to our fascination with humanity the elements of compassion and responsibility.
Change is the only alternative
Sustainable marketing is not a matter of choice, just like with environmental issues there is no alternative.
It’s time marketing owns up not just for the physical pollution it causes, but also to non-physical pollution. Just like dumping waste in a river is cheap and lazy, but will eventually kill your business, so are cognitive or cultural pollution.
This new definition of sustainable marketing recognises that the easy solutions, those common habits of marketing, may contribute to a disastrous future for both business and humanity.
Commitment to this new definition of sustainable marketing is challenging, but it is inevitable.
We must grow up and own up. As a famous British brand says about environmental sustainability: There in no plan B.
And just like some big conservative businesses have learned: if we can’t accept the fact we have to do it because it’s the right thing to do, at least we can acknowledge it is the only way for marketing to continue and work for our business.
To put it bluntly: The apocalypse is bad for business.