It is time to link sustainability to purpose – Kiran Dhanapala

Marketing is an activity that deals with boosting sales and profits by persuading poten­tial customers to buy more. Sustainability is about not consuming more than is necessary and leaving resources for future generations.

So is ‘sustainable marketing’ a hopeless paradox?

Sustainable marketing is purpose driven; it seeks to orientate businesses, brands and society towards a sustainable future, by influencing awareness, aspirations, adoption and actions.

Marketing is a force for good and can leverage change. This change is more likely to be achieved when linking sustainability to purpose while also making it personal to consumers.

In the past, messaging was often fear-based and warning filled, and marketers soon realised that ‘negative marketing’ wasn’t effective since people often tuned it out due to its undesirable content.

A 2023 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article highlights research findings on how best to market green claims. This is important because sustainable product purchases are growing twice as quickly as their conventional counterparts – i.e. at an average premium of a 28 percent across most demographics.

This research was conducted for nine iconic brands through an online user-friendly survey on a sample of people in the US between the end of 2022 and early 2023.

The HBR article highlights the findings in the context of identifying sustainability messages that work best with consumers. It finds that across all demographic groups, messages that most resonate with sustainability claims are impactful.

Yet, core product claims are the key. The product must work, be good in terms of its core characteristics and so on. Purpose is not a cure-all for brands but an integral part of the marketing mix; it makes for new levels of meaning and impact.

It’s important to use high resonance sustainability claims that focus on benefits for consumers, and their families and communities such as ‘for future generations.’

This contrasts with lower performing statements that include science-based claims, traceability, certifications and so on since customers are more interested in what relates to them personally rather than gathering technical information.

Some guidelines for developing sustainable marketing messages include the following: focus on the brand benefit first; link the sustainability claim to a reason for being; focus on the benefits to consumers and their families by personalising messages; use a specific aspect of sustainability such as sustainable sourcing; and promote animal welfare as consumers are increasingly concerned about it.

For personal care items, link the messaging to farmers and local sourcing that will help farms to stay climate resilient and nutrient dense. And link scientific aspects of sustainability to reasons to care such as being ‘carbon neutral to reduce the impact of climate change.’

And always quantify sustainability claims.

Certifications can help – but not as stand-alone information. So mention a claim such as ‘only uses 100 percent sus­tainably sourced ingredients and has been certified by…’

Research in the US shows that market share of sustainably marketed products is growing. This may be truer for younger, wealthier, urban and more educated consumers but it’s evident across all other demographics too.

Sustainable goods and services are healthy for people, the planet and business – and authentic messaging can help ventures that impact society positively.

Barbie is a brand that uses purpose in its product development. The purpose, which is to ‘inspire the limitless potential in every girl,’ led to the award-winning innovation of the first Barbie doll with Down’s syndrome. It promotes inclusivity and diversity.

This was created in collaboration with the National Down Syndrome Society in the US to include the specific features associated with Down’s syndrome in women. The doll is also dressed symbolically, and aims to raise awareness and acceptance.

All this contributes to a kinder and more inclusive society, while positively impacting specific families and customers.

Patagonia sources sustainable materials, pays fair wages and charges premium prices for upholding these values. Since 2014, its Fair Trade Certified (FTC) clothing also provides a quality product that can last a lifetime.

What’s more, Patagonia tells the story of purpose and values so that customers buy not only a product, but also decent values and a vision for a better world.

Messages need to be authentic and relate or respond to the needs of the time. Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign from 2004 evolved to improving women’s self-esteem and promoting real beauty compared to what is portrayed by social media.

More recently, in response to the mental health crisis among youth, Dove has linked mental health to its focus on beauty.

Sustainable marketing incorporates purpose into all aspects of products and their messaging, and seeks to uplift the world.