The perfect marketer in 2025 will be a responsible one
Marketers are in the unique position to clear up their own mess so that within five years, they can be judged on their legacy, says Jan Gooding
It is impossible to deny that over the past 100 years, marketing people have been at the centre of consumerism. Geared up to find out what people wanted and fulfil their desires. To provide choice. To improve services. To innovate. To provide emotional benefits beyond good functionality. To make life easier and more satisfying.
And it hasn’t all been bad.
Housework has been transformed by the arrival of the washing machine. Standards of living have risen across the world. Prices have fallen. Overseas travel has been democratised and television and the internet has opened up an astonishing world of entertainment and knowledge exchange.
However. The imperative of addressing the grotesque over consumption in the world now particularly sits with those of us in marketing.
We are part of a system that is destroying our world.
No one can argue against the fact that resources are finite and therefore consumption cannot simply grow ad infinitum without restoring and replenishing them. And while it is true to say that average standards of living have risen, it is equally the case that the gap between the rich and the poor has increased and continues to grow.
This month, I spoke at the Marketing Society’s annual conference. They had invited me to consider ‘The perfect marketer in 2025’. Rather than seeking to be perfect I promoted the idea of responsible marketing being the default position for all of us going forward.
Marketing has always sat in the intersection of production and consumption, which makes us arguably the only discipline with the credibility and influence in our organisations to respond to the challenge we now face.
Our main stakeholder is the planet
I believe that the most effective marketers will make themselves utterly fluent in doughnut economics, the circular economy and provide leadership on how business models and brands must radically adapt.
Every CEO worth their salt accepts that capitalism must be utterly reimagined with businesses compelled to address the health of our world and society. Shareholder primacy over all other stakeholders cannot be tolerated any longer.
We must think about the impact of the consumer demand we create.
We must address our responsibility for the production process, distribution channels and impact of consuming our brands. The pleasure of our customer cannot be the end goal.
Driving down the costs of production without accounting for and reporting on the consequences of such strategies will no longer wash. Packaging has to change. People increasingly accept that single use has become unacceptable. Prices need to reflect the true cost of production. Products should be built to last, be reused or mended.
But more than that, we must push ourselves into the terrain of what happens next, after consumption, that gives us the right to produce again.
Consumers hope we have worked it out for them
For far too long marketing’s job has been to put the gloss on stuff, no matter the reality of where and how stuff is produced and the impact it has on people and the environment. We should be the guardians of authenticity and embrace the idea of transparency.
We must think about how to make it easy for consumers to do the right thing to help our world. We must get consumers to entertain the idea of paying a little more to benefit those engaged in production not just distribution. To accept less choice. To stop leading them astray.
Brand purpose thinking should ground us
This is where some of us have lost our way. Brand purpose is a business operating model. Indeed - true brand purpose thinking can be as transformative for businesses as digital technology. Marketing has an opportunity to lead that change.
We’ve used our skills and power to change attitudes and behaviours around consumption and now we must do that in ways that create value for society – helping to create positive change on issues – not simply sell more stuff.
We have to let go of some marketing principles
Research often places ‘care for the environment’ or ‘acting responsibly’ quite far down the list of consumer motivations.
Brand purpose thinking should be used to ensure that singular claims and differentiators are underpinned and complemented by sustainable thinking. Of course, acting responsibly isn’t always appropriate as the primary benefit. But consumer motivations are complex. And people are open to doing the right thing as part of the overall package.
We need to put aside the idea that we should focus our brands on those attributes where we are the best or have a competitive point of difference. We can’t let that get in the way of making significant and rapid progress. Industries must make dramatic collective progress to mainstream responsible processes.
John Lewis aims to build back better
As chair of the brand purpose consultancy Given, I have been lucky enough to gain some insight to its recent work with John Lewis.
From the outset, its new chair, Sharon White, galvanised the energy for a radical reset of its organisational purpose by framing it as a once in 100 year event.
It was already the case that people tended to think of John Lewis and Waitrose as good brands, but further investigation revealed that no-one really understood why.
John Lewis in particular was perhaps guilty of relying too much on its Christmas ad to tell an endearing story. The brand has to put the substance behind what it means to be good.
A big ambition that will lead to great stories
It is striking that its purpose driven ambition doesn’t read like an advertising slogan. It could even be accused of being a little dull. But the implications are exciting and transformative:
‘Owned by the John Lewis Partnership, the UK’s largest employee-owned business, Waitrose and John Lewis are founded on being a better way of doing business. Championing equality, wellbeing and sustainability for the good of customers, Partners, suppliers and communities.’
Getting even more specific, it now describe itself as a ‘Partnership for positive change, improving lives and building a more sustainable future. We’ll grow in areas where these are important to our customers, like rental, recycling, savings, insurance and private rented and social housing.’
Its proof points are starting to emerge
In the existing food business under the Waitrose brand it is committing to source only from net zero carbon farms in the UK by 2035. And in addition to a commitment to halve food waste in its own operations by 2030, it's extending this to its supply chain too. Waitrose also aims to help halve its customers’ household food waste by 2030.
In the household and fashion retail arm under John Lewis, it intends to lead the ‘made to last’ movement, by doing more to ensure its products can be loved for longer.
It has committed that all product categories will have a ‘buy back’ or ‘take back’ solution by 2025. That all key raw materials in its own-brand products will be from sustainable or recycled sources by 2025. And that it'll develop sustainable rental and resale options for customers.
We will be judged by our legacy
Our mindset should be one that imagines our brand is on loan to us from future generations, less concerned with our brand’s heritage and only concerned with what we pay forward.
Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo, and Unilever. She is an executive coach, the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), the president of the Market Research Society, and the former chair of Stonewall. She writes for Mediatel News each month.