The new marketing mission: making sustainability your competitive advantage
As part of our Predictions Deep Dive, we sit down with Rob Mitchell, CEO, FT Longitude to discuss the evolving role of the marketer in leading the sustainability agenda.
How can marketers communicate complex messages around sustainability efforts, without being accused of greenwashing?
The role of the marketer is expanding and is more important than ever. Today, the message from marketing is not just about extolling the virtues of a product or service; it is a more nuanced role that must consider the impact on the planet and people, as well as profit.
Marketers have a new marketing mission and a new story to tell, and while the skills and capabilities of marketers haven’t fundamentally changed, their roles and responsibilities have. The customer is no longer the sole focus. Marketers must now consider a broader set of stakeholders – suppliers, investors, NGOs and employees – to influence behavior and drive positive change.
“When it comes to sustainability, marketing is still about communication, it’s still about storytelling, it’s still about taking complex messages and distilling them for an audience,” explains Rob Mitchell, co-founder and chief executive officer, FT Longitude. “But there are different roles and responsibilities that have come into play, along with different risks and challenges.
“It makes the role of the marketer more interesting but more complex than it was before. Rather than thinking in a simplistic way about the marketing funnel and trying to ultimately sell more to your customers, you’re having to think about all the other stakeholders that form part of the sustainability agenda.”
Sustainability is now a business imperative. Whereas in the past it was very much about corporate social responsibility – something that was adjunct to business and often handled by corporate affairs or communications teams – the gap between sustainability and marketing is closing. Sustainability is converging with strategy to redefine the role of the marketer.
“If you look at the evolution in sustainability over the past decade or so, we’ve seen it get closer and more integrated into companies, products and services and it’s become an increasingly important source of competitive advantage for many of these companies,” says Mitchell. “Sustainability becomes a differentiator and that’s one of the reasons marketing has become more involved as it becomes more integrated with strategy.”
Key to this is the relationship marketing has with other functions within the business.
“When it comes to sustainability, marketing can’t be an island within a business, it has to be very closely working together with other parts of the business – whether that’s finance, the chief sustainability officer, the supply chain – to get the data to get the stories and turn those into communications,” explains Mitchell.
But the challenge, Mitchell says, is “to keep those stakeholders in balance”, because they all have different demands and competing requirements that can sometimes conflict with each other.
“Those relationships across the business need to be stronger, which is good for marketing, because it brings marketing closer than ever to the center of the business, and it becomes a truly strategic function which is focused on the sustainable growth of the business. Think about where those relationships need to be strengthened and how best to capitalize on that.”
A change in mindset & metrics
While the fundamentals of marketing haven’t changed, the marketer’s mindset on how to communicate complex messages around sustainability efforts, without being accused of greenwashing, must change – highlighting the need to be open, transparent and humble.
“Many companies, I think it’s fair to say, are still on a journey when it comes to sustainability,” says Mitchell. “From a marketing standpoint, yes celebrate the successes and make claims when you can substantiate them – but also recognize that if you are not making as much progress as you could be, be honest and open about that.”
With sustainability now a key part of the marketer’s role, there comes a new approach to measurement and the metrics to prove the impact marketing has on business success.
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“It used to be relatively straightforward – you would look at brand metrics, conversion metrics, sales and see what marketing was able to contribute to,” explains Mitchell. “But it’s a lot more complicated when you bring all these other areas in as well and how exactly to evaluate the success of marketing when it’s focusing on this much broader sustainability agenda.”
The challenge here is that disparate data from marketing, finance and across the supply chain is decentralized and sits in silos within organizations, making it complex to bring it all together.
“It’s an evolving picture and I don’t think anyone has really cracked it yet,” says Mitchell. “The more we can do to formalize metrics and find ways of demonstrating the value of what we do from a sustainability perspective, the better able we are to demonstrate success in the wider organization.”
All of this is explored in much more detail in ‘The new marketing mission’ research from FT Longitude, which explores this new frontier and outlines six key objectives for marketers to do differently to make sustainability a competitive advantage for the business.
This interview with Rob Mitchell aired as part of The Drum’s Predictions 2023 which you can watch in full on-demand here.
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