Much debate exists on whether marketing and sustainability strategy are compatible concepts. Do these priorities need to be diametric or are they easily aligned? (Can CSR create long-term business value, or is it simply a bleeding heart cost centre?)
There are many definitions of marketing. On one end of the scale we have the inherently untrustworthy description of being a discipline involving gimmicks designed to convince people to buy things they don’t need. At the far end, it can be seen as satisfying customer needs profitably. This second definition is more compatible with the view that these two areas of focus are complimentary. “Sustainability is a collective term for everything to do with responsibility for the world in which we live. It is an economic, social and environmental issue. It is about consuming differently and consuming efficiently. It also means sharing between the rich and the poor and protecting the global environment while not jeopardizing the needs of future generations.” (McCann-Erickson, 2007) At first blush, sustainability and CSR both promise to drive up the cost of products, and reduce profit. Shareholders and CFOs cringe at this point. However, they do a much better job of protecting long-term profit opportunities, and potentially positioning an organization more favourably with stakeholders ranging from employees, customers, and communities / governments. But with the shareholders holding the biggest stick, is there enough of a value proposition to sell it?
Academically, is this a chicken and egg issue? A common debate is whether these issues have anything to offer each other, rather than simply competing. What can marketing offer the field of sustainability / CSR strategy in terms of taking a concept that generally increases the cost of products, and creating demand despite the premium through consumer education? What can sustainability offer the field of marketing, recognizing that consumption is outpacing what the earth can sustain long-term? They’re not unrelated, but they’re also not generally well understood.
It’s an interesting debate including a lot of facets:
– Do corporations have a responsibility to maintain a triple bottom line? (people first, planet, and profit)
– Can a CFO and a CMO or manager of CSR speak the same language on this issue?
– Is CSR useful in a capitalist profit-oriented corporation, even only as a tool to ingratiate an organization to the public, new international markets, employees that value social impact? (cause marketing)
– How much risk exists in creating a sustainability program that is profit-motivated, but positioned as an authentic pursuit, in the case where you can’t deliver at a level that is believable or doubt is cast?
– How far should an organization go down the path of CSR / sustainability expense? How do you know when you have gone far enough? Is it simply when the CMO has a feel-good moment or when the CFO’s ulcer goes away?
I propose that the answer lies in being clear on:
– Understanding why are you doing this
– Measuring whether the impact is satisfying the underlying reason for the investment
– Acknowledging the stakeholders that care, and the ones that don’t
– Discussing the risks of going too far or not far enough, as it relates to each stakeholder group
– Discussing the risks of creating expectations, and then losing focus later
The answer is that there is no single right answer. Every organization needs to make its own stand on this issue. BUT, if you can’t explain why, you’re going to have a hard time marshalling resources to support it, having credibility within the organization, or leveraging the expenditure to capture the stakeholder value you just generated (because you don’t know why you’re doing it). When you understand this deeply, you can explain it simply. At this point, you can measure if you’re doing enough of it, and anything that requires capital also requires measurement of impact because it’s not just an issue of whether you’ve done too much but whether you’ve done enough.
– Many employees care about the values of the organization they work for. If this is why you’re doing it, measure it with that group.
– Many organizations find that cause marketing opens up a loyal base of customer. If this is why you’re doing it, then measure it there.
Whatever you choose, in order to gain real support, your approach has to be explicable in its purpose from a business standpoint, because it costs money.