Part 3: Marketing
Victoria Hurth is Associate Professor in Marketing & Sustainable Business and Faculty of Business Lead: Student Satisfaction at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
Editor’s Note: This is the third of a 5-part series on the interconnected linkages between purpose, governance, marketing, a culture of purpose, and leadership as they relate to sustainability and the GRLI’s broader inquiry into global responsibility. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 4 and Part 5, or access the full series.
I have previously talked about the central role of governance to delivering purpose. The next core pillar of purpose for me is marketing, something I have been examining in relation to sustainability since I was a teenager and more formally for 15 years. I don’t believe you can deliver successful purpose-driven organisation without marketing that is totally aligned/ in the driving seat.
To explain this, I first need to outline my view of marketing. Here I can’t express it better than the management guru Peter Drucker:
‘Marketing is so basic that it is not just enough to have a strong sales department and to entrust marketing to it. Marketing is not only much broader than selling; it is not a specialized activity at all. It encompasses the entire business. It is the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result, that is from the customer’s point of view. Concern and responsibility for marketing must therefore permeate all areas of the enterprise.’
These days, in academic marketing circles, is seen as being the linchpin between the company and not just customers (potential customers/citizens) but all stakeholders. Nevertheless, this quote shows the potential breadth of marketing. I say potential because was the average person (or even marketer) think about marketing is shockingly nothing more than sales. As Drucker’s quote shows, marketing is not interchangeable with sales. If you are communicating something but have already decided the core elements of the product attributes and benefits, design and packaging, price boundaries, core identity/narrative and how you will make it available, then you are generally talking about sales not marketing — making the best of what you already have. Sales, and its bedfellow ‘communications’ (including advertising), are tied at the hip to marketing — they are the operationalising of marketing, and are highly influential in terms of societal ‘brainprint’. Marketing however is the totality of the subtle art of innovating goods and services that maximise the benefit for key service groups, whilst sustaining the organisation and its stakeholders. Innovation is the key word here and where a company gets the motivation and source for this innovation is the cornerstone to what results. If a company is not purpose-driven this might be driven by ‘how to find a market we can convince to buy our stuff’ or ‘how can we persuade our existing customers of product x that they really need product y’. If a company is purpose-driven then instead the focus is more like ‘how can we deliver goods and services tomorrow and in 5, 50 or 500 years in a way that wellbeing for the people that consume them (as well as for the broader precious resource base (human and non-human)) is maximised?’ This changes everything about what you innovate and communicate, but also how you go about it.
Companies can’t solve this puzzle by persuading people to buy the stuff that the company finds easy to sell (make-and-sell) or by being brilliant at finding out what people want and giving it to them (sense-and-respond). This may maximise money in the short term but it won’t produce long-term prosperity. The puzzle also won’t be solved by marketing (alongside design colleagues and top strategists) shutting themselves in a room with lots of customer surveys and hoping to come up with an answer that they can then sell or ‘educate’. The answer to the core questions above cannot be ‘known’. However, the purpose of delivering wellbeing in the long-term for a particular group of people can be known. By holding the purpose clear, marketing can walk hand-in-hand with the customer (and other stakeholders) on an ever-evolving transition towards the answer — the company adjusting its business model as it goes. We call this ‘guide-and-co-create’ approach to marketing (leadership + partnership).
The reason this transitionary, co-creative view of achieving the purpose is so important is because of the way wellbeing is created. Wellbeing is highly related to the satisfaction of foundational needs. A suite of needs that apply to all humans, on the one hand has been judged to be universal (e.g. Max-Neef, Maslow) — if you are human they must be fulfilled or your life will be of lesser quality. This includes the needs for a coherent and positive identity. In this way needs can be seen as an objective end point (not just whatever rocks someone’s boat in the moment). On the other hand the WAY in which needs are satisfied (the preferences that people have or what people see as having value), is totally context dependent. So, 100 years ago in the UK, as an example, we wouldn’t be fulfilling our need for participation in the same way we do today — we may have spent more time in Church and in other people’s homes. We certainly wouldn’t have been drinking coffee in street cafes. The context dependence is not just for national cultures but sub-cultures and lifestyle groups of all kind.
So how has the relationship between underlying needs and modes of consumption changed, and how has the UK gone from these connections requiring just 1 planet of resources per annum in the 50s to requiring over 3 now? Population has some role to play but the bigger impact is how we consume. This is where marketing’s critical role comes in. We live in a postmodern world where our identities are shaped by what we consume not what we produce — what we consume (not just material good however) is core to our ability to feel connected in today’s world. Marketing, often with a big budget (US companies spend an estimated $670 per head on media advertising alone), creates and reinforces the symbolic and lived associations between certain goods and services and underlying needs and identities. When we are thirsty do we reach for tap water, bottled water or a Coke? Over time marketing has locked in many dysfunctional and unsustainable ways of consuming and in this seemingly irreversible post-modern world, it is marketing that is required to get us out of this mess. If we try and skirt around this or ‘ban’ marketing, marketing activity will continue unabated to drive unsustainability whist we try and tweak the edges (it is very hard to regulate symbolic meaning). The power of marketing to do more harm than good is true even in many companies who claim to be purpose-driven, including charities. My first response to claims of ‘we are a purpose-driven or sustainable organisation’ is ‘show me your marketing’ — at the marketing coal face you often find that the good intentions hit a wall as marketing is pressurised to deliver short-term sales — where the real influence of a company happens.
Decades of practice and thinking has developed around marketing, including marketing that can deliver sustainable wellbeing (welfare marketing, societal marketing, social marketing to name a few). Kotler the marketing guru, has long stated he believes marketing should be focused on servicing long-term real needs of customers, for the benefit of them and the company.
Yet as organisations have been driven more and more to an overarching purpose of money-making, not wellbeing, the whole art and science of marketing (and hopes of marketing-orientated companies), appears to have dissolved into sales. It is in this context that I have been trying to help wake up the world to what marketing is — and its fundamental role in creating sustainability I have written a couple of co-authored papers (here and here) and a report for Friends of the Earth, that summarise my conclusions. These set out 6 principles as a starter, which myself and a growing group co-creators (Carole Bond, Tina Senior and Charly Richardson to name a few) believe can be used to transition and hold marketing to account. Working through how to deliver on these principles in practice requires a lot of great marketing/ business experts to come together and continually innovate and share conclusions. For this reason, we have created a Linkedin site to hold the space and where resources can be posted. To find out about these principles and be part of co-creating the solutions, please join the site.
We don’t want to replicate anything that is out there so if you are doing something that aligns, and we can work together to drive the right kind of marketing practice, then please get in touch via the Linkedin site and we will get back to you as soon as we can.
Victoria Hurth is Associate Professor in Marketing & Sustainable Business and Faculty of Business Lead: Student Satisfaction at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom.