The marketing profession has been absent from the sustainability debate
Many biodiversity professionals have undoubtedly followed events at the recent COP21 in Paris, where the UN climate talks resulted in some groundbreaking agreements. The private sector certainly seems more engaged in the sustainability debate. Leading consumer companies and retailers are publicly supporting global initiatives for renewable energy and zero net deforestation. It provides hope for the much needed transformation of agricultural production worldwide. However, this must be matched by a paradigm shift in consumer behavior, especially for the consumption of food and basic household products. Some observers have been keen to spot that, despite the presence of high profile corporate CEOs, the marketing profession has been noticeably absent, even though marketers have a vital role to play in informing and shaping consumer sentiment.
The palm oil sector is a good example of how changing consumption patterns, in tandem with corresponding EU food regulation, can have a tremendous effect on swinging the pendulum towards sustainable production: 20% of global palm oil production is now certified and this is set to double by 2020.
Consumer understanding of the link between sustainability and palm oil is still patchy and the marketing profession has done little to address this issue. Where indeed are the marketers?
Are turkeys voting for Christmas?
It seems obvious to think this is the case for a profession that sprung from the economic boom decades of the 50’s and 60’s and is seemingly dedicated to the continuous rise of private consumption. But such an oversimplification is not warranted, as marketing has become more of a victim of its own success. The essence of marketing is about crafting and communicating what an organization or individual has to offer. So, given the explosion in communication tools with the Internet, we are all involved in some form of marketing at some stage. It is certainly no longer purely the domain of consumer goods, and most of the expansion has focused on other sectors, from charities to celebrities to nation branding. Some of the founding fathers of the profession have been calling for ‘de-marketing’ to include the environmental perspective and for “creating shared value,” but such thinking has been slow to permeate a discipline that is now so fragmented and ubiquitous.
Marketing or communication?
The reality in today’s world of social media and online conversation is that a lot of marketing communication is done by non-marketers with no or little formal training in the art of integrated marketing. In fact, the question should be asked whether the term marketing still aptly describes activities that can include social media management, crisis communication and fundraising. There are fewer pure marketers and more and more specialists and consultants in a sector that has been diluted and industrialized through the abundant use of digital tools and outsourcing.
In these turbulent times of constant technological advance, we must all adapt and keep upgrading our know-how, whether you are a researcher, a manager or a manual worker. The marketing sector has been affected to a greater extent, as this trend has impacted its core skill set, and it is struggling to keep pace.
It is fair to say that marketing is going through an identity crisis. Given the above developments, it is lacking in focus and direction. Despite its growing reach, the profession has suffered from a declining image and credibility. Professional bodies, such as the AMA American Marketing Association and CIM Chartered Institute of Marketing have been unable to reverse the trend. This decline has been publicly lamented by leading marketing authors including Philip Kotler and Malcolm McDonald, who suggested: “the discipline of marketing is destined to become increasingly less influential unless there is some kind of revolution.”
There seems to be a consensus among marketing academics and practitioners that to regain a position of influence where it matters most—in the board room—the profession must counter its perceived short-termism. Marketers must put much more emphasis on its essential strategic function: to deliver innovative offerings to the marketplace that will satisfy the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s consumers, and benefit the long-term prosperity of the organization and society. “Marketing can change the world,” according to Hugh Davidson, provided the marketing community rises to the challenge of this fundamental visionary leadership role.
Lessons for conservationists
What can conservationists learn from the diverse and pervasive status of marketing? To emulate would be the best approach, given that multidisciplinarity and communication are fundamental to the progress of the biodiversity and sustainability agendas.
Effective communication must become a core skill in science education and research. Science communication is a growing field, but the scientific community will have to break free of the shackles of over-specialization, fuelled by the outdated ‘publish or perish’ ethos of the academic elite. Public access to scientific research should be universal and free: the process of widening access has been too slow. This may impact on the image and status of the scientific community, but just as with the marketing profession, it will benefit the cause of science and conservation in the long run.
About the author
Biodiversity Professionals member Barbara de Waard is a marketing coach and founder of Biodiversity Business, a social enterprise dedicated to creating shared value for biodiversity and business through conservation travel and supply chain transformation to save endangered species.