Marketers must prove that “sustainable consumption” is not an oxymoron


If there’s one thing that defines the relationship between merchants and consumers, it’s the fact that we use that word – consumers. Yes, of course we all understand that inside every consumer is a complete human being, with a name, story, personality, background, quirks, flaws, worries and dreams – but there is no shame in being clear about where our professional interest lies. .

Some in our industry have spoken out against this reductive terminology, but there is a pragmatism, a sense of focus – and honesty, too. We want to achieve profitable consumption of our goods and services – usually in one of two classic ways. We can encourage more consumers to choose our brand and increase our market share, or, if our brand already dominates, we can seek to increase the consumption of the category. Sometimes both.

Even when our briefs, branding models, and strategy papers frame things with more circumspect phraseology – with discussions of commitment, or insight, or purpose – underlying truth is that we have goals to strive for. and, to achieve them, we need consumers to consume.

It should be awkward, so – scary, even – to think about a sharp two-word fragment that came up several times during the recent COP26, and which will no doubt be heard more often from now on in: ‘consume less’ .

Reducing the “friction” of too many choices makes your buyer’s decision easier

Take it at face value and marketers have nowhere to hide. It is as if “sustainable consumption” is seen as an oxymoron, with the mantra that consumption of any kind will cause damage to the planet, and that once basic needs are met, we are automatically in “it”. excess”. So just like us traders spin the ‘plus’ wheel, environmentalists – and increasingly consumers themselves – are taking the ‘minus’ path.

How to respond

How will marketers react to this pervasive new cultural counterforce? Different, is the answer to that, because inside every marketer is also a human being, with that same all too human cocktail of inclinations and flaws.

There will be some who will turn into denial – accepting that “consume less” is on the lips of responsible citizens and growing louder by the day, but in one way or another, without binding it to their brand. Can being Coca Cola’s Global CMO really mean that your job now is to ask the world to consume less Coke? Surely not? Except that, logically, it would be.

Meanwhile, savvy marketers who know how to play the game – those who currently display a “sustainable” claim in all of their positioning frames as some sort of hygiene tick – will find a way to dress their brands in anti-consumer clothing. . . So expect to see more of the “reversal” technique, which is not entirely new.

Sometimes liberal consumption of the new, sleek, and intelligent involves the retreat of entire genres from the old, clunky, and absurdly single-lens.

Unilever’s “Dirt is Good” shows how to do it – with its implication that no one really needs to buy Persil. Successful brands will assuage consumers’ guilt, allowing them to choose a package of what appeals to them while simultaneously engaging in a conspicuous act of non-consumption. It’s a kind of marketing alchemy.

It’s not fair, however, so more thoughtful marketers will have to dig deeper and probe elsewhere. And I suggest that there are only three places to try.

The first is to let go of the discipline – to accept that a full, uncritical adoption of “consume less” is incompatible with what marketers are here to do. Either that or take a pay cut and confine the well-honed talents to marketing organizations, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, whose sole focus is waste disposal and climate change mitigation.

The second path is to take the concept of “sustainable” so seriously that every aspect of the brand’s offering is audited, assessed for its environmental impact and ruthlessly modified where it is not enough. The goal here is “circular production”, where the raw materials and methods of cultivation, manufacture and disposal ensure that they reinvest as much in the ecosystem as they take out. In the short term, and maybe in the longer term as well, one thing that will not be taken away is high profits; this is not one for the faint hearted.

The third way to go – and she could kiss number two while she’s at it – is to strike back at what is, in the end, a catchy but empty soundbite. Consume less of what? Of all? What a dismal and dangerous world that would be.

Perhaps marketers need to be a little more daring in their celebration of the extraordinary generosity of modern consumption and how it simplifies and enriches life. Who would want to go back in time to the end of the 19th century, before the invention of safe pain relievers? Who would replace their car with a few horses, and contribute so much greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and see sidewalks 7 feet high in manure again?

And yes, a typical first-world consumer might be on their fifth or sixth smartphone, but when was the last time they bought a torch, map, alarm clock, newspaper, or camera? Sometimes liberal consumption of the new, sleek, and intelligent involves the retreat of entire genres from the old, clunky, and absurdly single-lens.

People will not suddenly decide in droves to consume less. But they could take the mantra as a spur to break through the confusion they are currently feeling and commit to consuming better. The answer for marketers is to keep our cool, dramatically improve our understanding of problems, science, and solutions – and think more.


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