The IPCC’s code red clarion call this week should have inspired all of us to go further and faster to reach net zero. Leadership is desperately needed at all levels – and the good news is that communication is central to good leadership. So, here are the three big things that should be circled in red on the CMO’s agenda to take a leadership role in exciting progress toward a better future.
1. Redefine what growth means in a world where less will become more
We’re at an inflection point. The old world view of ‘growth at any cost’ must now die, and in its place a new world of transformative, regenerative business models must replace it.
Where the past 100+ years has been characterised by extraction, consumption and consumerism; the new world must be more conscientious, empathetic and circular.
Businesses understand how to deliver growth in the old world; but many are wrestling with how they cross the tracks. So, when the CEO turns to their CMO asking where the next £100M of growth is going to come from – new answers are needed.
Exactly what the answer is will vary depending on myriad factors like sector, routes to market, value chain, etc.; but the underlying principle should remain the same: to transition from a focus on value to values. Typically businesses rely on deriving growth from a dual focus on added value for the consumer - better, cheaper, faster - and commercial value for the business – more efficient, bigger scale, better profits. But now, businesses must seek to identify and satisfy its customers’ values and align those with your organisational values – for example matters of purpose, trust and authenticity.
Patagonia’s famous ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign is a good example of this approach in action. By actively telling people not to buy a new jacket, but use the brand’s supporting services to extend the life of the garment, it was able to appeal to eco-conscious consumers with a resonant message; differentiate the brand from its competitors and reinforce the quality of the product by showing how long-lasting it can be.
2. Communicate a clear vision for change that galvanises and inspires both internally and externally
In a crisis, great leaders have clear vision of what needs to happen; act decisively to create change; and become great communicators.
What makes this task of communication challenging is the sheer number of stakeholders to engage – be it the board, shareholders, employees and partners internally or customers, communities, media and government externally.
Communication is – naturally – of central concern to the CMO. They need to be working across the C-suite to define the organisation’s vision in the face of the climate crisis. This goes beyond the setting of targets and goes more fundamentally to the need to define the purpose that unites the business and connects it with its external stakeholders and the world around it.
As with the first point, the answer here will vary per business, but the CMO will need to focus on connecting the sustainability targets the business has set, with the brand it projects, creating a clear narrative that can support its new growth agenda.
SAPs vision for a ‘plastic free ocean’ is a good example here. As SAPs software manages so much of the global plastic supply chain, it is a credible vision that not only gets to the heart of the businesses impact, but can also include and speak to its customers and gives them something to buy in to when working with SAP.
3. Identify and meet new customer demands
As the effects of the climate crisis become altogether more immediate and real for people – be it the wildfires sweeping through parts of Greece, Siberia or North Africa currently; or the flooding in Germany and the UK earlier this summer – understanding the gravity of the situation is greater than ever before.
More regular and severe extreme weather events will bring with them new consumer interest, scrutiny and demands for the businesses perceived to be contributing to the situation. In the same way that digital disrupted businesses as they sought to catch-up with the ‘unreasonable’ consumer who transferred their expectations from one digital experience to another; the climate crisis will similarly disrupt, creating a new unreasonable consumer, transferring their expectations of what sustainable, ethical or circular is from the leaders to the laggards.
It will be the job of the CMO and their teams to understand and empathise with this new more eco-conscious and/or eco-anxious consumer, and deliver the products, services and experiences that meet their new demands. Where the first point was all about growth – the risk with this third point is that if the business gets it wrong, it will shrink as brand perception weakens or insurgent new brands swoop in to meet new unmet needs.
Adidas’ three loop product strategy is a good example of a business with a portfolio of innovations to address the climate crisis. The three loops cover recycling, natural materials and circularity and gives the brand the best possible chance of stepping confidently into the future with products that meet the various needs of its customers, and defends against a range of possible new market entrants.
The latest IPCC report, the impending splash that COP26 will make later this year, coupled with the weather effects we’re all experiencing in the here and now, means that the imperative is clearer than ever: there is no time to lose, we must act now. CMOs have a key role to play and must now take a leadership role in exciting progress toward a better future.