Circular marketing and growth should be the number one item on the Cannes agenda for CMOs. Michelle McEvoy, Initiative Lead for WFA’s Planet Pledge, outlines how marketers can move the levers for change.
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Conventional approaches to marketing and growth are becoming redundant. The paradigm of infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is incompatible with a sustainable future. As the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal on Responsible Consumption and Production explains, we must “learn how to use and produce in sustainable ways that will reverse the harm that we have inflicted on the planet”.
This isn’t a message of doom and gloom, however. Far from it. There is an immense opportunity for marketing to broaden its scope and explore where new value can be unlocked, harnessing its superpowers of creativity, data and innovation to drive genuine business and behaviour transformation.
We need to be regenerative rather than degenerative, a shift that marks the beginning of a new era and marketing can, if it so chooses, lead the way. Making a pledge to the planet isn’t just about having a clear road to Net Zero, it’s also about identifying the behaviours and opportunities that build resilience into your business whilst regenerating the place we call home.
The prize is vast, with the transition to net zero having the potential to “generate more than $12 trillion of annual sales by 2030”, a statistic that’s also backed up by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. As the conduit between market signals, commercial opportunities and the voice of the consumer, marketing can help identify new approaches that are good for the business and for people and planet.
So, what does this look like in real terms?
The key to realising this opportunity and transforming the conventions of marketing lies in building a better understanding of the entire value chain. This knowledge will enable marketing leaders to play a much bigger part in uncovering hidden opportunities.
Organisational value chains start with sourcing and, in the most part, end in disposal. The responsibility of marketing is firmly rooted in purchase and use. Whilst this approach has traditionally enabled marketers to thrive, it limits the value that marketers can add, because we are unable to influence upstream (with sourcing and manufacturing) or downstream (at end of use and disposal stages). The result? Our work and value as marketers is coupled with driving growth through material consumption.
In a new paradigm that is more regenerative, marketing has a broader scope across the value chain. This means that marketing leaders better understand the true impact, and opportunities, of products and services. Armed with this knowledge, the marketing function can play a role in building business resilience and growth alongside other functions, whilst creating opportunities to drive sustainable behaviour change at a consumer level by normalising a new set of behaviours that seek to ‘close the loop’.
The invitation for our industry is to take the breadth of skills that we have – creativity, innovation, storytelling and more – but apply them through a new filter: circular marketing and growth. Our Sustainable Marketing 2030 report, conducted in partnership with Kantar’s Sustainable Transformation Practice, identifies five ways that marketers can be the transformers we need:
- Put Sustainability first: sustainability must be embedded within all core marketing practices and processes from brand planning and market activation through to measurement and metrics that consider all stakeholders and not just shareholders. If sustainability sits in a siloed function with standalone strategies, its potential cannot be realised, and the business may not be future proofed.
This principle is illustrated beautifully by the world’s largest B Corp, Natura & Co, whose approach to business “calls for an all-encompassing business model that gives back more than it takes.” Through their Sustainability Vision 2030, Natura & Co set out to “tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues: addressing the climate crisis and protecting the Amazon, ensuring equality and inclusion, and shifting our business towards circularity and regeneration.”
- Harness Radical Innovation: innovation has long been a growth lever for marketers but conventionally, innovation has been focused on the product or service level. While sustainable product and service innovation remain key, there is a broader opportunity to innovate at a business model level, helping to boost business resilience, normalise new consumption behaviours and build more collaborative relationships internally.
Chilean brand Algramo for example are reimagining the way people buy liquid FMCG products. By selling smart packaging and refills of well-known household products, the company is revolutionising a major component of the regular shop and normalising refilling.
- Create Transformative Relationships: companies can sometimes struggle to make big changes but partnerships, both internally with other functions and externally with partners, offer a way to be more radical and demonstrate the business wins that come from rethinking the way we operate. It can also accelerate the transition and increase impact. Quaker have a great example of how this approach can drive business transformation. As part of the Pepsico Positive (pep+) transformation, Quaker marketers partnered with PepsiCo’s R&D team, Innovate UK and local farmers to grow the perfect oat, raising the bar on sustainable oat production across the industry.
- Creativity into action: marketing is a key vehicle for driving sustainable behaviour change, educating consumers on their choices and normalising new sets of behaviours. Whilst brands want to leverage the power of their marketing communications to drive sustainability messaging, the greenwashing/greenhushing tension persists. As an industry, we cannot shy away from using our superpower, for creativity in our communications. But at the same time, we need to ensure they are grounded in value chain reality.
Oatly are a great example of a brand that is notletting ‘perfect’ stand in the way of progressive messaging and climate action by choosing to talk about what they can robustly measure and owning why they can’t measure the rest.
- Redefining value: value needs to shift from being just about financial value to a more inclusive view that includes environmental and social metrics. Driving broad adoption of a more holistic value logic is essential because it affects investment decision making, P&L incentivisation and overall marketing strategy.
This is possible even in the largest companies. Another Planet Pledge signatory, Diageo, have created a clear link and direct accountability for ESG commitments with their senior management community by incentivising every senior leader to make progress on their ESG agenda.
Positive change led by marketing
Marketers are uniquely placed to drive the change we need thanks to their unique skillset of creativity, innovation and communication. We can shape new norms and tell the stories that will change behaviours, guiding our organisations along a path that delivers for the business, for the planet and for its people.
The task isn’t easy, but we have faced similar challenges before. The last decade has seen every inch of our discipline permeated by the digital revolution and now digital is table stakes. The sustainability revolution requires the same level of focus, but with one addition: speed.
Planet Pledge is WFA’s effort to deliver against the task at hand. Launched in 2021, this framework of four pledges champions the UN’s Race to Zero and collectively aims to help global brand owners lead the transition of marketing towards compatibility with a sustainable future. Thirty-two of the world’s largest brands have now signed up to Planet Pledge, signalling their commitment to helping make marketing part of the solution.
We must all now act with a sense of urgency that’s correlate to the challenges we face. 2023 marks the halfway point for the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the decade of action.
Join us and let’s make the second half count.