Monday, 15 December 2008

New article for mediacat (comments?)

A Big Year When Not Much Happened?

2008 will I suspect go down as a turning point year in sustainability. On the surface it seems like much less happened – there was less ‘news’ and less hype. But look beyond that and you can start to see this as the year when things started to turn in a new direction.

The media hype about eco marketing died down this year. In the early presidential coverage in the USA Al Gore’s researchers reported that climate change only got the same number of mentions as UFO’s (3 each). In the UK the media proclaimed that we all had ‘eco fatigue’. We saw a fall in the amount of “change your light bulbs” style eco friendly marketing this year. But while the media wanted to shut the case, the public concern about climate change grew: from 68% to 72% concerned or very concerned worldwide. Even after the financial markets meltdown, in October a global survey found that nearly half (43%) of people around the world wanted governments to make climate change a higher priority than the economy.

All sorts of new factors have come into play on climate change: Obama and a new American enthusiasm for energy independence; the global recession, energy and commodity prices all contributing to the first global slowdown in carbon emissions in several decades (since the collapse of the soviet union). The EU have hammered out a definite agreement on carbon reductions – not perfect but a good start. In consumer markets we are finally seeing a new restraint as Andy Bond the CEO of Walmart subsidiary ASDA put it: “We are moving into an area of the frivolous being unacceptable and the frugal being cool. A whole new consumer generation will come out of this.”

And that’s good news because the other major “discovery” this year was false accounting at the heart of my government’s position on climate change. The UK claimed, as did many countries reporting their carbon emissions under UNFCC rules, that the economy was growing while emissions fell. In fact three recent reports have shown that this is only because we were not counting net imports of carbon; the biggest example being the raw materials, manufacture and transport that go into Chinese imports. When you include these ‘consumerised’ impacts you find that: 1. Consumer goods are probably the biggest carbon impact of all (30% of the footprint) bigger than transport, heating lighting and so on, 2. every €1 spent in the shops on new goods equates to 1kg of carbon, from its manufacture and disposal (ie before it even gets used). That means the onus is now very much on us in consumer marketing to change our ways - or have them changed for us by regulators. Recent debates about 'superconsumption' are only the start, it's about much more than throwaway gadgets, it's about most of what we buy.

With that finding in mind I think that this year will be a turning point for consumer marketing too. So far we have seen green marketing as something relevant to perhaps the most sustainable 5-10% of what people buy; the green brands, but also the hero products (Prius) and major corporate reforms (M&S Plan A). Now we need to focus on the other 90%. My own thoughts are increasingly focused on what role marketing can play in the building of a better world overall. Both a positive role in accepting its opportunities but also a self-disciplined role in accepting its responsibilities.

Why marketing? We need the creativity, the knack for catching human desire, the humanity and imagination to help people re-imagine the world, to help clients to re-imagine their markets. The argument about ‘why?’ is in my experience less important today. Many large companies understand that this is definitely the way the world is going sooner or later, and knowing that most will want to lead. But the way seems blocked, it isnt easy to find new business models that make sense. It is hence about ‘how’ – finding whole strategic platforms to transform markets at the same time as being seen to lead. By transforming people's buying criteria - for instance from ticket price to lifetime cost, sustainable new markets can be built. But building markets is not something you can do by 'administration' and filling in the boxes, it is an entrepreneurial challenge. Not all marketing departments think this way!

In these future markets:

- people will value the factors which are truly sustainable, not the ones which are ‘cute’ or ‘charity like’ but those which really do promote low energy, low carbon emissions, low waste, workers welfare, health and so on

- people will continue to reclaim brand meanings; brands will be more authentic and green villains will increasingly have their right to advertise and promote their brands curbed. For instance 4x4 cars will not be able to claim ‘the great outdoors’ these meanings will hence return to the rightful brands, for instance of walking boots

- faced with this companies will have to decide whether to go with their product lines or their brands. Range Rover might make an excellent brand of walking shoe, mountain bike, outdoor clothing, walking tour, slow travel holiday and so on…. And it could still make great (low energy) farm and wilderness worker vehicles. It just isn’t tenable for it to remain a gas guzzling fantasy car at the same time.

The question for every marketing client is very simple. Do I want to be part of the new world, which will in large part be a sustainable world? I’m not pretending it is an easy question. It will require a difficult transition. It’s the question of a sinking boat – should we stay, or should we try to swim for it? The recessionary mood may actually help people make the bold decision – desperate times call for desperate measures.


David Hawksworth said...

Hi John,

I think you could also say that 2008 was the year that mainstream marketing professionals starting to get their head around finding their place in the solution (at least the ones that write blogs.)

There is a tendency for agencies to have a first person view of the world i.e. there are agencies and then there is every other kind of business that they do marketing for.

In actual fact you can see a marketing consultancy in exactly the same context as a manufacturer of 4x4 vehicles. They both sell products that do not have sustainability built in. They both have to work out how to change this.

If the communication profs. as the mediators between people inside and outside of companies can work it out first then perhaps the rest will follow.



Anonymous said...

Provocative to say not much happened. (I like it).

I think you could pump this message up though; the sentiment being something like,

"Sure, the supposed superiority of western economic doctrine crumpled before our eyes and America woke up to the idea that dependence on foreign oil and climate change required a bit of an energy policy re-think - but still in the boardrooms of the world the green marketeer is the emotional and kooky one."


Ryan Jones said...

My thoughts are also increasingly focused on what role marketing can play in the building of a better world overall. I agree with you that a big part of the challenge lies in the area of self-discipline. Discipline is especially tough for those marketers working in stock listed companies...we have to report the numbers every quarter. Maybe one criteria for a company to be considered serious about being Green in 2009 and beyond is for them to go back to being privately listed? What do you think?