What do marketing directors have to say about responsible business?

During 2015, Business in the Community held a series of Marketing Director dinners, kindly hosted by Unilever with the Marketing Society.  During these, we heard from more than 20 marketing directors of top consumer brands about the relations they see between marketing, purpose, responsibility and sustainabilty.  Here's what we learned.

Marketeers can see the business case for doing business responsibly, and sustainably.

Marketing and sustainability seem at first to be fundamentally at odds with one another, as many, including sustainability communications expert Thomas Kolster, have pointed out.  Surely marketeers work to get us to buy more stuff, while sustainability professionals want us to buy less?  But, like Kostler, we found in reality marketeers understood the business case for sustainability. As one senior marketing professional at our dinner series pointed out, the business case for not doing business sustainably is much more difficult to make.  

Given their area of expertise, it’s not surprising that marketeers also saw a prime role for themselves in communicating that business case.  After all, if the marketing community doesn’t take on the role of marketing and creating a demand for sustainable business, who will?

Marketeers want to work with the wider sustainability movement to communicate with customers.

We need to look for the overlap and that will deliver growth.

- Zaid al-Qassab,
Chief Brand Officer, BT
Working side by side with sustainability and community campaigners is seen as a valuable way for marketeers to connect with consumers on these issues.  Collaborative campaigns such as Responsible Business Week, Collectively.org and Project Everyone provide them with readymade opportunities for talking to customers about their brands’ values, and how they can help them make more sustainable choices.

Building trust in their brands is a vital objective for marketeers, and transparency is needed to do this.

Related to this was theme that came up time and time again - the importance of getting stakeholders to trust brands. One aspect which was brought up at the dinners was crucial role of transparency in achieving this.  In a world where reactions on social media and data about a company are widely and easily available, being transparent about what their actions helps to build trust and maintain reputations.

Companies with a strong purpose are good for marketeers, but defining that purpose brings challenges.

Only 4% of women around the world could identify themselves as beautiful. Dove is helping the next generation to have a different view of themselves. Dove is more than a product it is a brand with a vision, that can impact society positively

- Aline Santos,
SVP Global Marketing, Unilever

Purpose is increasingly being driven as a brand differentiator by brand managers and marketers.  Leading companies are openly talking about their purpose statements and acting to align their core products to them, aiming to create a positive contribution to society and/or the environment, while achieving commercial success. 

Integrating sustainability into purpose created both opportunities and challenges though, throwing up fundamental tensions between a company’s core products and services and achieving environmental sustainability or social development.  Some companies may need to shift their purpose to be more reflective of societal needs, market changes and customer expectations. This could give marketeers the chance to share their knowledge of consumers’ shifting expectations and needs, influencing the direction of the company and making it easier to build a relevant brand in the long term.

Marketeers are very aware they can’t build a sustainable or responsible brand on their own.

The Marketing Directors attending the dinners knew they had to work with their Executive Teams if they were to genuinely create sustainable brands, but many agreed that tensions still exist between different departments.

A need for the “right stories” from other parts of their businesses was also mentioned – the examples of business practice that bring sustainability alive and let marketeers tell a story that makes it real for stakeholders. 

CEOs are influenced by other CEOs.

- Nick Mercer,
Managing Director, Eurostar
And of course no marketeer can sell a sustainable brand if the actions of its leaders undermine it. The Volkswagen scandal has put in sharp focus the need for leaders to behave true to their stated values if brand image and reputation is to thrive. How to achieve this was one focus of discussion, with the power of competitiveness and peer pressure seen as crucial here. If leaders see that their peers are getting serious about behaving in a trustworthy fashion they are likely to follow suit.

Interested in finding out more?

Contact Charlotte West, Marketplace Director on Charlotte.west@bitc.org.uk, or see our Marketplace web pages to find out more about Business in the Community's Marketplace agenda.

We would like to thank our guests for taking part in these dinners and to Unilever for hosting and sharing its own sustainability journey. The dinners took place at Unilever’s offices on 31 March, 19 October and 12 November 2015. 

Companies involved

Marketing Directors, and senior marketing professionals from the following 23 companies attended:

British Airways, Kingfisher, Burton’s Biscuit Company, InterContinental Hotels Group, Transport for London, Jaguar Land Rover, GlaxoSmithKline, Eurostar, John Lewis Partnership, Bain & Company, Post Office, HSBC, BT, IBM, Adnams Plc, Aviva, Royal Bank of Scotland, Shell, Barclays, Sodexo, Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, Project Everyone, United Utilities.