Marketing Brand Safety World

Have marketing elites lost touch with the public? The green backlash suggests so


By Gordon Young | Editor-in-Chief

September 25, 2023 | 8 min read

The Drum’s founder, Gordon Young, wonders why marketers and consumers aren't aligned on the importance of net zero. Is it a case of marketers calling the shots from their ivory towers or something else?

London  Bubble

The fascinating research from Ian Murray and Andrew Tenzer has been at the front of my mind recently as controversy swells up around the net zero push on both sides of the Atlantic.

Over the past five years, the pair have been working to highlight the differences in thought between people working in the marketing industry and mainstream audiences.

They were initially inspired to investigate why the marketing industry was at odds with swathes of the population during the Brexit vote. I suspect the same is now the case across various issues, including the green agenda and attitudes towards big oil companies such as Shell.

In the marketing bubble, there is overwhelming consensus on these fronts - and woe betide anybody with an alternative view. Still, in terms of the broader community, these issues are far from settled.

So why the disconnect?

Following Brexit, Murray and Tenzer initially put this down to a ‘London bubble.’ In the UK, at least, they found that brands were not connecting with people outside the capital. You hear similar talk about the likes of New York and the ‘flyover states.’

However, subsequent research showed that the London bubble does not exist. It appears the disconnect is really about marketers themselves, not where they work. And the reason? A lack of social diversity. In fact, from a UK perspective, marketing is among the top 10 elitist professions.

It seems to be a bigger issue in the UK regions where 71% grew up in households where the highest income earner was social grade AB, compared with London, where the figure was 69%. It is 29% of the UK population as a whole.

So it looks as though, even as the sector is pushing advances in gender and racial diversity, it is yet to break its own class ceiling.

Wrote Tenzer wrote in Marketing Week: “So what can we do about it? The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one. Let’s stop hiding behind the concept of a ‘London bubble’ and acknowledge that the real bubble is the culture of marketing. No matter where you’re based, the only way to overcome this is to recognize your own biases and accept that understanding people takes time and proper effort.”

The sentiment is particularly pertinent at the moment as realpolitik clashes with the move towards net zero.

In the US, Donald Trump announced he will address striking Michigan autoworkers, accusing President Biden of trying to destroy the industry with a dash toward electric cars and other green policies. In the UK, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that his government will row back on certain green commitments as they reach the 2050 deadline for achieving net zero.

Similar political shifts have been seen globally as politicians wake up to the fact that pushing up the cost of living and taking away jobs may be a vote loser.

Although polling shows that most, in common with the marketing industry, support policies designed to help the planet, that passion dissipates when the direct costs become apparent. It is a phenomenon familiar to any salesperson - there is a massive difference between someone saying they will buy something and them stumping up the hard cash.

The reaction around Havas Media being appointed to handle Shell gave some insight into marketing industry sentiment–critics by far outnumbered supporters as far as I could see. Many accused the agency of hypocrisy and demanded they have any B-Corp membership revoked. And you probably do not need the services of Murray and Tenzer to work out how the most vocal members of the community would view the Sunak and Trump news.

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So, it is fair to ask whether or not the conditions that led to the marketing community being blindsided by Brexit and the election of Trump still exist. Do they have enough insight about how the people directly affected by net zero really feel?

The UK oil and gas industry employs 200,000 people, 90,000 of whom are based in the city of Aberdeen. Some of these people risk their lives to extract a commodity on which our civilization still depends and will continue to depend as we transition to new, cleaner energy sources.

Can you imagine sitting on a wind-swept North Sea platform reading about how some marketing exec in London calls for your firm to be vilified and cast out of polite society, even as it uses the energy you are helping to produce? Or what about if you are one of the three million US car workers, wondering how the drive to electric will impact your job? Their fears and concerns are rational.

To reach net zero, we need to keep these communities onside. Society needs their technical expertise. And politicians need their votes. The challenges are huge and complex. The solutions will be varied, controversial and even unexpected. But the marketing industry is particularly well placed to help defuse a growing green backlash - but only if it remembers the fundamentals of marketing.

It needs to listen to its audiences, understand its fears and gain the sort of insights that will help deliver the right product at the right price at the right time to help create solutions driven by market demand as well as political mandate, in other words.

Of course, a big part of this is to put its own bias to one side and make a serious attempt to understand the fears and concerns of the public. Part of this might be to ensure their teams are not only more diverse in terms of race and gender but also in terms of social background.

Marketing can change the world, but not if it is trapped inside a bubble.

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