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Brand Strategy Sustainability Marketing

What hiking etiquette can teach us about sustainable marketing

By Matthew Berk, Director, Brand Marketing



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February 21, 2023 | 6 min read

How is a sustainable business like a responsible hiker? Matthew Berk of agency Known looks at what businesses can learn from the well-trodden path of nature lovers.

A woman atop a mountain in hiking gear, surrounded by pine trees

What can sustainability conscious marketers learn from the rules of hiking trails? / Stephen Leonardi via Unsplash

A few summers ago, at an elevation of 11,000 feet, I learned two valuable lessons. The first was that I needed to take altitude acclimation more seriously. The second lesson, slightly delayed by the first, was about the concept of trail etiquette. Somewhere in the Arapaho National Forest, between tiny sips of water and a handful of Advil, my brother-in-law educated me on this unofficial but universally accepted set of rules.

Perhaps it was the dizzying effects of the thin mountain air, but it struck me that the rules of trail etiquette worked for guiding brands in the same way they do for mountain trails. After all, we share the same goal: to cultivate lasting experiences through stewardship and sustainability.

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When we talk about sustainable marketing there are two schools of thought. The first is a literal interpretation focused on environmentalism. The second is a conceptual interpretation focused on building lasting relationships with customers through trust and a deep commitment to issues that matter. In both instances, the focus is on impact now without compromising the future. As modern customers become more invested in brands’ value systems, it is essential that marketers consider both the literal and conceptual approaches to sustainable marketing. Today, brands that do not practice as they preach, (or worse, intentionally deceive customers) risk losing customers altogether.

Trail etiquette is a general code of conduct that ensures respect for nature and fellow hikers alike. Pithy park signs describe its mission in this way: “Take Only Photographs, Leave Only Footprints”. It is a reminder of our obligation to keep these trails in good condition so that they can be used and enjoyed for years to come. Here are just a few ways that these rules can help us become more sustainably minded marketers.

Rule 1: Leave no trace

Despite what its name suggests, this rule is all about making an indelible impact through a commitment to quality and a rejection of malicious practices. A hiker would never leave a trail of trash on their excursion. Marketers should hold themselves to the same standard, both literally and metaphorically.

If you are ‘polluting’ the environment with content that is wasteful (materialistically or temporally), you have violated this cardinal rule. Winning customers in this way may feel cumbersome from a time and resources perspective, but consider this: are all customer relationships made equal? Would it be fair to say that customers that have been won through thoughtful, sustainable practices are more likely to positively engage and less likely to churn? If nothing else, ‘leave no trace’ teaches us that committing to sustainable practices is, in the long term, a winning strategy.

Rule 2: Stop and listen to your surroundings

Much has been said over the last decade about the increasing intentionality of consumer behavior. Add the recent impact of inflation, and you have the portrait of a well-informed, proactive consumer that does not have the time or the money to waste on brands that don’t fit into their lifestyle.

Rather than guess which way the wind is blowing, take a moment to pause and listen to your consumers. They are here to help guide the path. A quiet moment of reflection may reveal the most productive one.

Rule 3: Make your presence known

This final rule is about announcing yourself in such a way that everyone, human friend or fanged foe, is aware of your presence. Here at Known, it is the driving force that informs all our work: how will you make yourself known?

Reputation is hard to build and easy to lose. Without a strong set of values informing your brand identity it’s easy to get lost in a forest of modern challenges. Your audience cares about more than your product; they want to know what you stand for.

Sustainable marketing is not simply a trend that brands can board. It must be intrinsically tied to your core value system. Otherwise, audiences proficient at sniffing out inauthentic practices will turn on you faster than a startled mountain lion.

At Known, we work with brands to strengthen their identity and value system, before entering the wilds of the consumer marketplace. Together, we can build a belief system that the organization can truly be proud of, and one in which their customers see their own core values reflected in them. Happy trails!

Brand Strategy Sustainability Marketing

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Known is a modern marketing company that pairs Ph.D. data scientists with award-winning creatives, expert research teams and strategists who leverage machine learning,...

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