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17 April 2010

A Call for a Revolution in Marketing

Tag(s): Marketing, Sustainability

This article appears in an edited version in the current issue of Market Leader, the magazine of the Marketing Society of which I am a Fellow.  This week’s blog is the full version.

As a lifelong passionate Marketer I am proud of the role Marketing has played in the world economy. Despite the ravages of two world wars and totalitarianism prevailing for decades over half the world’s population the twentieth century saw the greatest rise in prosperity in history. This was largely due to a combination of liberal democracy with free market (if not unbridled) capitalism. The engine of this was Marketing as Marketing is about the search for innovative solutions to identified needs, the recruitment and retention of customers, the creation and building of value, the profitable development of the business proposition, the unifying theme of an enterprise, the response to competition and so much more.

In 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell it seemed like all the issues had been resolved. Francis Fukuyama called it the end of history. Interestingly on 29th December that year the Nikkei index peaked at 38,957.44 yen and has never seen such heights since. It is today 10,798.32 yen.

As we come to the end of the first decade of the twenty first century (and if you think it’s already over then you can’t count to ten) such triumphalism seems premature. The practice of mass production which led to mass consumption now looks short sighted as we can see that we are consuming irreplaceable resources at an unsustainable rate. Wherever you stand on the climate change debate (and I am firmly on the side of the 98% of scientists who believe that not only is the climate changing at an unusual pace but these changes are caused by mankind) it must be clear that fossil fuels are finite resources that took billions of years to develop and are being consumed in a few hundred years. Not only are fossil fuels finite, but many other critical materials are also scarce including some of those that are required to develop replacement energy sources as for example the lithium that is used in lithium ion batteries that will permit electric vehicles to replace internal combustion cars.

The fact is that any enterprise that uses resources faster than they can be replaced is not sustainable in the long run. Our success in marketing has been too complete. As we have learnt how to develop bigger and better business models built on powerful brands and scalable franchises our need for constant growth has blinded us to the long term problems that this will cause. Wherever one looks one sees the paradox of outstanding business success based on unsustainable business practice: supermarket chains gobbling up land banks and killing the high street and local farmers; fast food companies targeting “share of stomach” and cutting down forests to grow their beef burgers; financial institutions selling debt to those who can’t afford to repay it; beverage companies using many litres of scarce fresh water to produce one litre of their processed product; clothes manufacturers closing local factories to export production to sweat shops in developing countries exploiting child labour; food manufacturers encouraging obesity with the use of the wrong nutritional mix.

So am I some Johnny-Come-Lately getting on the logo denying environmentalist bandwagon?  Far from it, I did not subscribe to such views when they were first expressed because while I was concerned about their warnings I saw no hope in their alternatives. They seemed to be just advocating a cessation of Marketing with a reversion to a long-lost alternative life. It is clear that the genie is out of the bottle and we can’t put it back. Instead we need to use our Marketing skills to develop new sustainable businesses that will both contribute to continued growth in prosperity but also adopt sustainable practice.

There will be opportunities in new forms of renewable energy but also in new practices to reduce our use of energy. The skills of Marketing will be required to persuade people to live and work in new ways. Greater density will be required in the design of new cities. New forms of ownership will be adopted so that our use of materials is infinitely more efficient. Recycling will be much more than car boot sales and eBay. There will be huge new industries in the recycling and reuse of valuable materials. New technologies will be developed that conserve rather than consume. Marketers will address the needs of conservers rather than consumers.

What I am calling for is a revolution. Not with blood in the streets but of business practice and consumer behaviour. I have lived through several revolutions in my life and am confident that there will be at least one more. I have lived through the revolution of consumerism that has led to this situation. I lived through the revolution of civil rights. As an exchange student in the US in the 1960s I met a Black Panther who told me that unless the black power movement got what it demanded “this country will burn, baby!” Then there has been the revolution of women’s rights and in attitudes to various minorities. There was the overthrow of the Soviet Union and of its acolytes throughout Eastern Europe which led to the liberation of countless millions. There has been the Information Technology revolution which has transformed ways of working and the organisation of the firm. That has been succeeded by the Internet revolution which is still going on and has further transformed many types of business and consumer behaviour.

So to paraphrase one of the greatest copywriters of all time, Karl Marx, the Marketers have nothing to lose but their chains of consumerism. They have a world to conserve. Business men of the world, unite!

Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved

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