Innovation often happens when two existing concepts are executed in a way they haven’t been before. Sustainable marketing is one of those. Though we’ve seen the two terms come together to market specifically environmentally friendly solutions, we are starting to see a new approach emerging.
There’s a new wave of marketers exploring what it means. Recent concepts encapsulate a move away from disruptive short-term and scattered marketing tactics, to instead examine our responsibility as marketers to support brands to be more sustainable overall.
Just as the industry moved away from "interruption" techniques like cold calling in favor of value-led inbound communication, many marketers are now looking to take this a step further and define more sustainable strategies: aligning with the shift toward conscientious business practices and supporting companies to establish long-term, scalable and meaningful success.
What Is Sustainable Marketing?
Despite its recent rise, sustainable marketing is an evolving concept.
Harvard Business School talks about sustainability in business meaning "doing business without negatively impacting the environment, community, or society as a whole." Gradually, sustainable marketing has grown from meaning marketing for environmental companies, to encompass more of the societal and business connotations.
Some marketers are now using the concept to challenge marketing practices they view as unsustainable. Adanma Onuoha from NBS embodies this when she says, "The profit-centric nature of traditional marketing is reinforced by the ‘rewards’ marketers get for hitting specific targets. But as business sustainability awareness spreads, marketers are beginning to question the traditional form of marketing.”
While others are working to more closely define a sustainable marketing approach. Philip Kotler introduced the idea that “the concept of sustainable marketing holds that an organization should meet the needs of its present consumers without compromising the ability of future generations to fulfill their own needs," which touches more on the long-lasting impact of marketing activity.
Whichever way you look at it, people are rethinking how we market, asking if there’s a better way, and challenging marketing’s role as an influencer of wider business models. Here are some key approaches and outcomes of sustainable marketing.
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It’s about ensuring continued success, by building longevity for the business and commercial results.
Looking at sustained results doesn’t have to mean compromising on speed; it means just not putting it first. For example, starting by laying a strategic foundation may not reap immediate return, but it will keep giving back in terms of consistent and continued results.
Positive impact could mean a lot of things, but a good place to start is to think about sustainable marketing as a fundamental part of sustainable business practices as a whole. Tim Bansal presents the challenging idea that, “as marketers, we must consider how our combined activities contribute to the sustainability of the whole ecosystem.” It wouldn’t be a reach to suggest that as B Corp standards become commonplace, businesses may be measured on their marketing due diligence.
Or coming back to the original HBS definition of sustainability, maybe we need to think about the carbon footprint of our marketing practices as well. For example, accumulating all the latest tech isn’t environmentally cheap.
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Taking the time to build an infrastructure that’s designed to scale not only allows, but helps, your business to grow. This can encompass everything from training your people to creating repeatable campaign workflows.
It supports an environment where learning, development and improvement is the leading force behind activity. This can be extended to how marketing agencies work with their clients. To work more sustainably, marketers could be educating their clients and building infrastructures that scale for them — rather than just running a campaign and then leaving.
Curating a highly relevant and loyal audience will be much more valuable for your brand than short-term engagement. To achieve this your messaging and activity must stem from a place of honesty and understanding.
If you truly get what your audience needs, then you can talk directly to that group — instead of a generic audience — and build lasting trust.
Why Does It Matter?
Often, scaling B2B companies can struggle to articulate the core value of their offering, to carve out their unique space in the market and to gain commercial traction. From experience in this space, the ones that succeed are focused on long-term results and improvement rather than short-term acceleration.
This is because, framed by this mindset, their subsequent activity is authentic, conscientious, and can be, well, sustained.
How Do We Achieve It?
Marketers must always be willing to evolve their approach. A quote I discovered lately discussing sustainable design summarizes this perfectly; we need to be “comfortable being uncomfortable.”
For many marketers, taking on a sustainable approach will be uncomfortable. It encourages us to audit our practices and ask serious questions:
- Am I prioritizing speed over longevity?
- Can I maintain my hiring or team structure long-term?
- Is our marketing authentically representing our company vision, or are we just adding to the noise?
The hard part for many to swallow is that it’s not going to be instant. You don’t have to sacrifice speed, but maybe we should. Maybe it’s better to take time to create something authentic, personalized and ethical, in contrast to something that seeks immediate results as opposed to long term success.
The Future of Sustainable Marketing
In the future, as more and more of us try to work sustainably, the marketing space could become less of a battle and more of an information highway. If we’re creating conscientiously, then we shouldn't be getting in each other’s way or vying for attention.
Businesses can successfully promote themselves with authenticity, safe in the knowledge they will reach and engage the right people, every time.