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Marketing’s role in sustainable growth is unique and essential

Anyone who thinks of polluting industries probably thinks of oil companies, airlines or perhaps the car industry. But have we ever considered how polluting marketing is?

Looking at the way marketing is set up now, it is a huge polluter. After all, good marketing drives consumption. The better the marketing, the more sales, therefore more consumption, therefore more emissions. But it can also be the other way around.

Every time a brand, a marketer, a media strategist or a creative makes a decision, they have the opportunity to promote sustainable or unsustainable behaviour. So marketers are the problem. And yes… also the solution. The question is: what concrete steps can the marketing industry make to build a sustainable future?

How damaging is marketing?

A sloppy 600 billion a year is spent in the marcom industry. With that money, marketing has been moving society for decades. How damaging that is has been mapped out for several years by a British network of now 4,000 advertising insiders. Under the banner of “purpose disruptors,” the term “advertised emissions” was introduced: greenhouse gasses resulting from the increase in sales thanks to advertising. Since 2019, this has increased by 11% to 208 million tons of CO2. That’s about as much as 100 million gasoline cars emit in a year. That makes advertising responsible for 32% of CO2 emissions. Let’s face it, for about 90% of the people reading this, the better you do your job, the more you sell, the worse it is for the climate crisis.

Footprint vs brainprint

The grill restaurant around the corner may emit more than an average advertising agency, but marketing is the architect of seduction. So unlike the “operational footprint,” the “brainprint” (the psychological, sociological and cultural influence and impact of a brand or campaign) is huge. How we think about (female) beauty, the status that people derive from roaring gasoline engines, the belief that a meal cannot be complete without meat and the joy that children receive from sugar, it is mostly the result of good marketing.

Marketing has proven superpowers. For example, marketing has convinced people to spend 40 cents for a (Nespresso) cup of coffee. At home. Or 600 euros on a Dyson vacuum cleaner. Or 1.55 for a can of caffeine from a brand that is even banned in some countries. It’s quite impressive. But that “super power” could also be used by marketers to promote sustainable solutions and consumer behavior. Something that marketers want as well.

The role of marketing

According to Sustainable Marketing 2023, a survey by the WFA and Kantar, 90% of marketers think the sustainability agenda needs to be more ambitious, and 94% (!) say we need to act and experiment more boldly to initiate transformative change.

Mother Earth thinks so too. April 12 is “earth overshoot day” in the Netherlands. The day we have used up our biocapacity for the year. We would currently need three planets to meet our consumption needs. According to science, we have reached six of the nine planetary limits. The tide must turn radically if we are to grant future generations a livable planet. Chances are you’ll stop reading after this paragraph, because you know these kinds of statistics already. You even became numb to them, and with you consumers. As a result, many consumers are not yet taking action.

On top of that, consumers often see sustainability as a sacrifice. Sustainable alternatives would be more expensive, less tasty, of inferior quality, require more effort, etc.

If we want to promote a new way of life, there is little we can do with data. For however much we are aware of the social challenges, humans are not rational. So how do we promote sustainable behavior?

Tomorrow’s products and services must fulfill our individual and collective needs and unspoken dreams. So we will have to entice consumers in a different way. In this, marketing has a unique and essential role in driving sustainable growth. But what is that role and how do you grab it?

1) Vision for the future

Climate scientists are very clear about what we need to leave behind. Most consumers feel the same way. The only thing missing is persuasiveness in the stories brands tell. That is pre-eminently the task of marketers and the creative industry. They can sketch and depict a world that is livable and sustainable and in which both people and the environment flourish. That vision can appeal to customers as well as to internal employees. 

Any organization, using the right trends and foresights, can provide a vision of the future that is both dystopian and utopian. Such an exercise is not only super inspiring and connecting, it also helps to break free from the short-term and financially driven thinking that holds many organizations in its grip. Based on that distant vision of the future, as a marketer you can calculate back what innovations need to be developed now and what campaigns and stories need to be leading to excite and inspire consumers towards the transition.

2) Empathy

To come up with solutions that are truly relevant and meaningful, we will need to understand what the needs, fears, and dreams are around a sustainable, circular and regenerative lifestyle. By thinking like anthropologists and social psychologists, marketers have gotten better and better at understanding people in recent years. By putting human needs and the SDG’s at the center, we create space to come up with sustainable solutions. It helps you identify what people and society really need. Again, this is typically a role for marketing because we are one – sometimes even the only – function in the organization that brings the outside world in.

Then it is up to us to influence sustainable behavior in an ethical and empathetic way so that people do not feel they are making a sacrifice. The human sciences teach us that people buy products not just because it is simply sustainable but because we can showcase our values to others (Patagonia), because we want to belong (solar panels), because it gives us status (Tesla), or simply because we feel better about ourselves (veganism). If we truly understand our customer, we need to know that sustainability is often a means, not an end in itself.

3) Aesthetics

We are only at the beginning of a sustainable revolution. To influence consumer behavior to such a degree that we help people embrace sustainable products, marketing will have to adapt its design and storytelling. Design and storytelling are typical marketing skills that can make sustainable choices more beautiful, desirable and irresistible. People are up to 22x better at remembering stories than other forms of communication, according to a report by Futerra.

Many marketers hide behind the intention-behavior argument. “Our research shows that people want sustainability, but then when we innovate – they don’t buy it.” In my opinion, this mostly indicates a lack of strategic knowledge or creative skills on how to truly influence and inspire sustainable behavior.

The power of imagination, empathy and aesthetics give marketers the opportunity to be less polluting and a-social and take steps toward a sustainable future. For that, collaboration is still needed between marketers on the client side and creatives on the agency side. They must dare to challenge each other to come up with solutions to the world’s problems. And not the other way around, by causing problems with the solutions they offer now. Building a sustainable society is the only way forward.

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Author

Aljan de Boer

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Kim Pillen

Consultant

Before Kim Pillen started as a trend consultant at TrendsActive, she worked for four years as a creative strategist at Dept. For brands such as Philips, bol.com, Beiersdorf, JBL, and the Consumers’ Association, she built (online) campaign, brand, and social media strategies. After four years, she decided that she wanted to better understand people and society in order to advise brands more effectively. That’s how she ended up at TrendsActive. Here, she can do what she loves most: digging into people’s needs and then working with brands to see how and where they can be relevant and meaningful.

Douwe Knijff

Researcher

Douwe is fascinated by how people work. With a background in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences (Bachelor) and Psychology (Master) and an analytical mind he tries figure out how societal shifts manifest themselves through social culture and human behaviour.

Aljan De Boer

Keynote speaker

Aljan has been widely recognized as an inspiring professional speaker on the critical trends that will shape society in the decades to come. He works as the Head of Inspiration at TrendsActive, a trend consultancy from the Netherlands using social science to human-proof business decision for brands like

  • Disney
  • Vodafone
  • Hugo Boss
  • ASR
  • Rabobank

Next to his role at TrendsActive he is the Community Director at the Institute for Real Growth where he inspires and connects a global community of +400 CMOs.  

He has been on the board of the Dutch Platform of Innovative Marketing for almost a decade. Regular speaker and moderator for the Dutch Marketing Awards and 3 times winner of the best of MIE. 

Kees Elands

Founder & Strategist

Kees his purpose is to help ambitious leaders and brands to human-proof their business. In 2003 he founded TrendsActive, a trend consultancy enabling brands to become more human centric.

Kees consults global brands like

  • Disney
  • The Coca-Cola Company
  • Asics
  • Discovery Channel
  • Swiss Life
  • Vodafone

and many more.

Next to being the founder of TrendsActive, he is also initiator of the first academic trend master for executives at the University of Utrecht and is initiator of various trend studies and white papers on subjects like trust, meaning, visual culture & generations.

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Kees Elands

Founder & Strategist

Kees Elands

Founder & Strategist