Can marketing save the planet?
Marketers have a unique toolset to help change the world for the better—it’s time they used it, says Guardian columnist and brand strategist, Arwa Mahdawi
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Drinking a glass of orange juice in the morning. Eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. Eating cereal for breakfast. Proposing with a diamond engagement ring. Taking a coffee break in the office. Watching a soap opera.
Whenever someone tells me ‘oh, advertising doesn’t influence me’ (it’s funny how many people reckon they’re too clever to be swayed by ads) I have to laugh. So many of the traditions and rituals and associations that we take for granted are the result of canny marketing. The marketing industry has fundamentally shaped the world we live in. It’s moulded our habits and permeated our vocabulary. It has persuaded us to pay more for certain products, dress a certain way, think a certain way.
I don’t need to tell an audience of marketers all this, of course. However, while I may not be telling you anything you don’t already know, I’m saying it because I think it’s important to take a step back and remember just how much power the marketing industry has. It’s a power that I think is sometimes forgotten in a world focussed on how technologists are reshaping society. And it’s a power worth remembering in a world where advertisers sometimes seem sheepish of their profession, eager to rebrand themselves as tech-types instead. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making TV ads or coding algorithms: the most powerful technology anyone has ever been able to harness is persuasion.
Being a good marketer is like having super powers: you can change people’s behaviour, you can shape the way they see the world. But with great power, of course, comes great responsibility. And, let’s be honest, the marketing industry doesn’t have a brilliant track record when it comes to being responsible. Marketing has fuelled the climate crisis in a number of ways. Most obviously, it’s encouraged overconsumption; it’s given us all an unsustainable addiction to shiny new things. More insidiously, however, it’s helped to push responsibility for the climate crisis away from corporations and onto individuals. I won’t name names, but there have been innumerable campaigns in recent decades peddling the idea that if you just recycle your plastic, track your carbon footprint, and choose products with words like *sustainable* on them then you can save the world. The real message behind those campaigns? It’s your personal choices that are the problem, not our business ones.
Of course, the vast majority of us know that’s rubbish now. Yes, individual choices are important; however, it doesn’t matter how virtuous ordinary people are, nothing substantial will change unless corporations transform their business practices. As the 2021 WFA Sustainability and Marketing Report made clear, people believe that brands have the power to make a difference and expect brands to move us towards a more sustainable future. Just like digital transformation, sustainable transformation is a business imperative now; if you don’t evolve you’ll go extinct.
Again, the vast majority of us realise how urgent things are and how important it is that brands do their part. Alas, far too many people in power don’t seem to feel the urgency of this moment in a visceral way. There are still quarterly sales targets to be met, there are still end-of-year goals to hit. There are still short-term challenges that get prioritized before long-term change. And there’s still too much disagreement among different business units about what long-term change should look like.
Sir David Attenborough has said that climate change is a “communications challenge” and he is absolutely right. When it comes to marketers, however, I think it’s important to realise that the first communications challenge is internal. Brands can’t make a difference if there isn’t internal consensus about what the path to sustainable change looks like and why it is so important. Before preaching to consumers, brands should be getting their own houses in order. And this is where I think the marketing industry has the potential to really make a difference. Marketers have the skills to galvanize everyone in their organization behind a single vision. They should be leading internal discussions about sustainability; they should be ensuring everyone buys into a clearly articulated roadmap for change.
If you’re really going to commit to something, then you need mechanisms to help keep you accountable. That’s where I think the WFA Planet Pledge comes in. It’s a framework that helps keep companies across different sectors and industries honest. It’s a framework that helps marketers work with each other rather than against each other. There’s no way any single individual (not even Elon Musk!) or organisation is going to solve the challenges the world currently faces. It’s going to take our collective brainpower. It’s going to take every ounce of our willpower. And it’s going to take some seriously good communications skills.
Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist, brand strategist, and the author of Strong Female Lead. Follow her on Twitter @ArwaM