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Can Marketing be sustainable?

Florian Schleicher
Marketing Advisor & Strategist

Can Marketing be sustainable?

A guest post by Florian Schleicher on the superpower of marketing and how to use it for positive impact on people, planet & profit.

We are in the midst of a market revolution:

The climate crisis and our shift to a sustainable lifestyle are on everyone's mind. At the same time, it is a highly emotional and complex topic. In the last years of my work I always observed how it is easiest to see and place the responsibility on others first.

So let me share a short story with you.

Apart from working in marketing for more than 15 years, reading a lot of books and being fascinated by the future I love beaches.

Beaches like these:

But the sad truth is that beaches nowadays look more often like this:

So a couple of years ago I thought to myself:

“We need to do something about this.”

But the challenge as mentioned above is - “We” is very broad and we like to see the responsibility somewhere else.

So I changed one little word and said:

“I need to do something about this.”

And after learning and applying the ropes of sustainable marketing at Greenpeace and Too Good To Go, I started my own impact marketing studio where I help future oriented companies to bring their marketing to the next level - with what I am good at: Strategies.

So how does that work?

Because Marketing managers today face a major challenge:

  • Marketing still has to achieve goals - we want and need to generate business growth.
  • But marketing must also achieve sustainable growth for people and the planet.

Is that even possible together? Is sustainable growth possible? Can marketing be a force for positive change?

And if so, how? In order to get there, we need to understand how we ended up in our current dilemma and what marketing did to get us there.

🦸‍♂️ The superpower of marketing

The saying "What you measure matters" sums it up very well. In the past decades, the goal of most companies was one thing above all: Profit.

We measured that in GDP.

And marketing has done an excellent job of helping to increase that:

Global GDP © The World Bank 2023

Our economic growth has been driven by one thing above all else: Selling/buying more. And the "fuel" behind that was CO2.

So that increased in equal measure:

© Global Carbon Project 2023

How does marketing contribute to this?

Jay Samit, former Independent Vice Chairman Deloitte Digital sums it up well:

"At the heart of all sales and marketing is the ability to create demand even in the absence of logic."

Because the superpower of marketing is one thing above all: manipulation.

Manipulate GIFs | Tenor

And yes, I have also had a contribution: I spent many years at the beginning of my career advising large corporations and helping them generate higher profits in the next quarter.

The problem is that this quest for more has brought us to a situation where our habitat is on the verge of collapse and hundreds of thousands of people are suffering under the current economic system.

Or as Olivia Lazard from Carnegie Europe has put it:

7 out of 8 safe and just planetary boundaries have been crossed. And we’re still thinking and operating according to a limitless growth paradigm.

We have put profit at the center and when there was a surplus of it, we invested that little bit in people and planet - a very small delta of overlap for our society:

© Florian Schleicher

Now we are trying to turn the tide and have plans like the UN's SDGs or the COP's 1.5 degree target that give us a roadmap.

Where do we stand on this?

We are on track to achieve 12% (just over one-tenth) of the 140 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. That's because 97% of respondents in a Kantar Research say they are willing to change their lifestyle - but only 13% actually do it.

So it doesn't look like a real shift in thinking just yet.

But I'm an optimist and a big fan of solutions.

So I'd like to outline here how marketing can help us get out of this crisis now.


“Marketing is powerful; it can change how people think, feel and behave. We should all be asking how we can drive changes that are for the better.”

Hannah Harrison, Chief Sustainability Officer, WPP

We share a responsibility, and we have to be aware of it.

Because there is huge potential!

  • 68% of consumers think brands should care about social issues and get involved.
  • 52% prefer buying brands that represent their personal values and that stand for something greater than just their product and services.
  • And 1/3 of workers between 18 to 24 years old have declined a job offer when the company’s environmental commitments did not align with their values.

So back to the initial question and my answer:

💚 Yes, Marketing can achieve goals and sustainable growth

Countless companies demonstrate that sustainable growth is possible. A few examples: Too Good To Go, Faircado, Revo Foods, Pela, Early Majority and many more show ways.

But how?

We need to embed sustainability literally and integrally at the core of the company strategy (not just the marketing strategy).

I will talk more about how this process works in my live-session at the Tomorrow University on October 17th, so here are just some thought sparkers for you.

What is a good strategy? It is the process of getting us from A to B. Quite simply captured in this model, which I found outlined like this in Richard Rumelt's book:

1 👁️ Diagnosis

The first step is to start sustainable marketing strategies with people:

  • What problems do they face in their everyday lives?
  • What challenges do they have?
  • What motivates them?

I described more about this in this article on understanding target groups.

Then our diagnosis or analysis is based on a true understanding of our customers.

Next, we also consider what impact our business and marketing has on the planet.

Now we have a holistic view about the impact of our marketing in the diagnosis.

2 🏁 Guidelines

So now we understand our market in all facets.

Based on this, we now create a vision and a positioning to guide us and set ourselves two to three goals per half-year to focus on. In doing so, we make sure to address in turn the aspects of people and planet that we defined in the diagnosis.

And we define how our marketing impacts which of the 17 SDGs.

Our vision and goals then strive for sustainable impact.

3 🧩 Coherent actions

When we have people and planet incorporated at the basic level, our actions will have a direct positive impact on both.

This is where channel concepts, campaigns, content strategies, stories and all the implementations of our marketing come from.

The extra mile of this is also going a step further and thinking about how we can use marketing to encourage sustainable customer behaviour.

Then our measures are aligned in such a way that they address real needs of people and our living space.

🌟 A new North Star

No one likes to buy products and services that are "bad." There is often just too little knowledge about good alternatives. We would all choose the company and brand that offer "good" for planet and people.

So we put the focus on that.

Yes, it is work.

Yes, it needs investments.

Yet, it requires innovation.

Nothing is easier than simply doing business-as-usual, not changing anything and simply striving to maximize profits for as long as possible.

But: Our pursuit of competition and consumption must also leave behind a world where it still makes sense to pursue both and where we enjoy living.

Whether it is due to regulations coming our way (ESG reporting such as ESRS), changes in consumer behaviour or simply because the business base (nature in the tourism sector) is lost - the economy will and must change.

If we can strategically align marketing to address Planet, People and Profit equally, we can also create value and sustainable growth for all three.

With the right strategy, we can use the superpower of Marketing for good.

Thanks for reading along and I hope to see you soon in our next live-session!

About Florian Schleicher: Florian is a strategic marketing advisor specialised in sustainable growth. For the past 15 years he has led and helped shape marketing at McDonald's, Greenpeace and the food waste initiative Too Good To Go as their Head of Marketing. In 2022 he founded the Impact Marketing Studio FutureS and passes on his knowledge to help more organisations to a greener future.

As an advisor he is currently helping many founders, CMOs and CEOs, to create concepts that help to tell their sustainability stories and achieve success for people, profit and our planet.

Meet Florian on October 17th in our virtual campus for an event where he will discuss sustainable marketing strategies. Florian also has a newsletter where he writes about marketing, strategies and sustainability. And he hosts interviews with marketing leaders in his podcast. To acquire 21st-century skills for a sustainable transformation of the business world, explore the Impact MBA.

Florian Schleicher
Marketing Advisor & Strategist
Florian Schleicher
Marketing Advisor & Strategist

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