How can marketing change the world? Rory Sutherland, Cindy Gallop, Sir Martin Sorrell and others discuss

The Drum's print magazine relaunched this week, with a focus on marketing as a force for positive change in the world.

As part of The Drum's relaunch issue, we contacted some of the brightest minds in the industry to tell us why they believe marketing has the power to change the world. Here, five of them share their viewpoints on how marketing, in its many forms, can have a positive impact and create a wealth of change beyond making money.

Rory Sutherland, executive creative director, OgilvyOne and vice-chairman, Ogilvy Group UK

The sum of the world’s wealth is not really expressible as a numerical figure and is imperfectly related to monetary wealth. It is really the sum of the rewarding choices which people can easily and confidently make.

It is fairly easy to prove this through a simple thought experiment – you simply imagine a wealthy man living in a small village on an isolated island. It is easy to see he may be significantly worse off than someone living near a large interesting town with only half the money.

Most economic discussion revolves around how to generate more money, with almost no thought given to how people might make better choices with the money they already have. Yet, rather than growing economic wealth, helping people make more varied and better choices with the wealth they have might be a relatively easy alternative approach to improving human wellbeing without increasing consumption.

In the last 20 years or so we have begun to understand better than before the way people choose, and the psychological mechanisms at work in human decision-making. This should give marketing a new lease of life. Wherever there exists a valuable possibility which people never adopt or even consider because of some psychological hurdle, there is a chance for marketing to create wealth from pre-existing resources simply by removing that barrier. The good news is that the world is full of such examples.

The opt-out pension is a good example of creating a palatable choice where none existed before. For simple psychological reasons (we are a social species) we find it much less nerve-wracking to do things if other people are already doing them. Buying an individual pension for yourself is terrifying. Joining a scheme together with all your mates at work is relatively reassuring. Even if the two pensions are indistinguishable in financial terms, the individual one is far less appealing than the collective one.

Or take the London Overground. Here was a railway line which had existed for years under the name Silverlink Metro. Nobody used it. Renamed the Overground and added to the Tube Map, it suddenly became a salient option. Within a month of this change, usage increased fourfold.

Marketing has a wonderful alchemical power to create options and possibilities as if out of thin air. Brands have the spectacular power of making brave choices seem safe. ‘Would you like this electric car?’ ‘No.’ ‘What if it’s from Ford?’ ‘I’ll take a look.’ ‘Solar panels?’ ‘No.’ ‘They’re from John Lewis.’ ‘Oh…’

If we want people to change their behaviour, and to adopt more pro-social behaviours, making those new choices salient, appealing and non-weird is not an add-on, where marketing is retro-fitted as the last little bit of magic dust. It’s the first place we should look.

Cindy Gallop, founder, IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn

It’s very simple for marketing to change the world. Firstly, you need to integrate social responsibility into day-to-day business. Too many companies (and agencies) think changing the world is completely separate to making money.

This is not helped by the fact that the two things are structurally siloed inside companies. Corporate social responsibility has its own division separate to sales and marketing. We change the world when we change that: integrating social responsibility into the way we do business on a day-to-day basis and thereby making it a key driver of future growth and profitability.

So how do you do that? Well, you need to understand that everything starts with you and your values.

This is as true for individuals as it is for companies and brands. When you identify who you are, what you believe in, what you stand for, what you value, and then always act on those values, it makes life (and business) so much easier. Life still throws at you all the shit it always has, but you know exactly how to respond in a way that is true to you.

Nobody is better positioned to make this happen than the marketing profession. We talk about ‘brand values’ all the time; we conduct lengthy, elaborate, wide-ranging studies to identify them; we say we want everything we do to reflect them. What are we doing to ensure the brands we manage actually act on them?

There’s a big difference between saying, ‘I want to change the world and so I’m going to go out, find a cause and attach myself to it’ versus ‘I want to change the world and so I’m going to look within myself, identify what it is I believe and value, find what I should be doing to change the world through those values, and then go out and do it.’

And finally, you need to implement the business model of the future. That is: Shared Values + Shared Action = Shared Profit (financial profit and social profit).

When brands and businesses align together with consumers and audiences around values you all share, and when you then invite and enable consumers to collectively and collaboratively co-act on those values, to walk the talk together, you can make things happen in the real world that will benefit consumers, benefit society, and benefit your brand and your business.

Start changing the world today – because you can.

Nick Law, global chief creative officer, R/GA

Sadly, when we ask how marketing can change the world, it betrays our deep insecurity and desperate need to be seen as more than a bunch of feckless shills. Maybe it’s because, as a service industry, it’s hard to feel like we can change the world when we have limited control over what we make.

Evidence would suggest it’s an absurd concern. Since the 1930s, public service advertising has been persuading people to give their attention, money and time to causes that have changed the world in big and small ways. It’s pretty clear to me that we have the tools and talent to do even more in the future.

In the last decade we’ve been furnished with technologies that help us enable change more directly. An interface turns a persuasive message into an action. Social media turns individual willingness into community action. Now, many agencies are proficient enough with these technologies that every year we’re seeing more and more efforts for good.

At Cannes we saw dozens of incredible examples, many using the narrative skills agencies have always been known for. Beautifully crafted videos bringing attention to diverse issues were viewed and shared by hundreds of millions of people on social networks – a scale of influence unimaginable 20 years ago.

20 years ago no agency would have had the technology, expertise or imagination to do some of the things I saw as president of the innovation category. Buoys with shark detection technology that protect people without harming sharks; bindis (the decorative forehead dots worn by many Indian women) that combat iodine deficiencies; air conditioners that filter drinking water; and software that gives 75 per cent of the world’s population an address for the first time.

Marketing may not be the right word for some of these, but agencies in the marketing industry are changing the world now more than anytime in history.

Sir Martin Sorrell, founder and chief executive, WPP

“Typical Westerners may be forgiven for thinking that they have more power as consumers than as citizens to improve the quality of their lives”. This blunt truth, that marketing is “more democratic than politics”, is the central thesis of a fascinating book by John Quelch (a former WPP non-executive director) and Katherine Jocz from Harvard Business School.

For more than 50 years, they argue, the field of marketing has insisted companies put customers’ interests first. The modern, empowered consumer has extraordinary choice and access to goods and services, and an ability to influence their world through those choices that far exceeds their ability to influence it through political means.

Marketing not only performs an essential social function in a democratic way; the adoption of marketing principles (studying people’s needs, encouraging dialogue, building long-term relationships) can lead to better, more democratic government.

Leaders have long recognised the power of what we now call marketing communications to bring about social and political change. It’s the reason Bono came to Cannes last year, to enlist the marketing community in the fight against Aids through his organisation (Product Red). And this year former vice-president Al Gore attended the festival, using the platform of WPP’s Cannes Debate to encourage delegates to help tackle climate change.

They both recognised that gathered together for a week in Cannes are many of the world’s most skilled communicators, representing the world’s most influential, far-reaching, trusted brands, which enter the homes of countless millions every single day.

During our debate Al Gore challenged the industry to do more. I responded by suggesting the heads of all the major holding companies stand side-by-side at next year’s festival and agree a joint approach.

The fierce rivalry between agencies and their parents is healthy for the industry and for the wider economy, because it drives innovation, quality and better performance. But, as the positive responses from my opposite numbers to the Al Gore proposal show, the greater good can occasionally be served by letting go of each other’s throats, and linking arms instead.

Doug Ray, global president, Carat

At its best, marketing has the power to change the world. It can raise awareness, shift points of view, elicit action and even start movements. Generally though, marketing does not aim this high. Rather it focuses on selling stuff. But, as Simon Sinek points out in his book Start With Why: “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”

The best marketers get this. They understand that great brands must have a purpose. Think about Google Chrome’s 2011 ‘It Gets Better’ or Barack Obama’s 2008 ‘Vote for Hope’ election campaign. Both achieved far more than simply selling.

There is probably no company that better understands this than Procter & Gamble. Over the years it has created some of the most purposeful marketing that not only sold product but changed the world.

Most recently it has experienced tremendous recognition for the Always #LikeAGirl campaign, which seeks to help build self-esteem and confidence in young girls, preciously when those traits are most vulnerable. It has also taken on natural disasters, giving those displaced by hurricanes, floods and wildfires clean clothes through Tide’s ‘Loads of Hope’ and saving wildlife affected by oil spills with ‘Dawn Saves Wildlife’.

The list could go on and on. How about Channel 4’s ‘Meet the Superhumans’ for London’s 2012 Paralympic Games, or a Partnership for a Drug Free America’s iconic ‘This is Your Brain’? The point is that when done well, marketing can tap a deep, emotional chord that moves an audience and, in fact, changes the world.

To read more views and insights on how marketing can change the world, pick up a copy of The Drum's relaunch issue.

Staff Writer

The Drum is a global media platform and the biggest marketing website in Europe. We produce The Drum magazine, 30 awards and events and manage The Drum Network which aims to make independently minded agencies more successful. We also help brands find the right agencies to work with through the Recommended Agency Register (RAR).

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