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Marketing Is from Mars, Sustainability Is from Venus

Image credit: Fiat

Most brands are still scarily silent about the difference they want to make in our lives and yet hope we won’t notice them force-feeding us with advertising-as-usual until they produce consumer foie gras. This is in stark contrast to what people expect of brands today: According to Havas’ Meaningful Brands Survey findings, 71 percent of people globally want brands to solve some of society’s biggest challenges such as unemployment, climate change, etc. Then why are brands still so silent? Why does there still seem to be an insurmountable wall between sustainability and marketing?

As in most struggles or conflicts, the answer is often hidden in the differences between the two parties: Languages, views, race, gender or backgrounds. It’s when sustainability meets marketing (or the other way around) that the problem arises — essentially marketing and sustainability people do not speak the same languages and they don’t have the same qualifications, only adding to the gap of sometimes planetary dimensions: Marketing is from Mars and sustainability is from Venus.

Life on Planet Sustainability and Planet Marketing

On Planet Sustainability they care about facts and science: It’s about exploring supply chains, measuring the amount of carbon emissions in Brussels sprouts (remember to add the fart factor!), and there are endless discussions about materiality. On Planet Marketing it’s quite the opposite: It’s about emotions, feelings, purpose — and the language is often more about fiction than facts. In sustainability, everything is complex and analysis is key. There are often no simple answers and it’s no longer about cradle to grave; oh, nooo — it’s now actually about cradle to cradle. Conversely, in marketing, simplicity and emotion are key — so it’s easy to communicate a message people can internalise and act on.

The overall goals of marketing are sales and building brands, which are often measured in monetary value, brand recognition and similar. In sustainability, it’s about doing things smarter to limit or eradicate negative impact and build a prosperous planet, which can rarely be measured one uniform way – again, more complexity. For each of us wearing either the sustainability or the marketing hat, these differences can lead to frustrations, misunderstandings and unfortunately in many cases campaigns or branding attempts with more style than substance (something sustainability people will quickly dub ‘greenwashing.’) 

A balancing act

I’ve seen my fair share of campaigns where the pendulum either went too far towards sustainability or too far towards marketing. Sustainability is often a numbers game and numbers coupled with scientific abbreviations aren’t making the message any easier to read. Who knows if a car advert touting 184g/km CO2 is environmentally friendly or not? (HINT: The average target set by the European Union for 2015 is 130 g/km.) In marketing, it’s about understanding the target group and translating the message into something actionable.

If the target group don’t care much about nature, then focus on money — like in a VW ad for its BlueMotion technology, redacting parts of its long message with strikethroughs to simply communicate: BlueMotion saves you money. If your target group is environmentally conscious and may I add, highly emotional, then translate the consequence of those numbers into a message people can understand on an emotional level. Fiat did so in its impactful ads showing Pandas as crash-test dummies to drive home the message that Fiat cars are tested for a lower-impact on the environment (they had been certified the lowest CO2 emission car range that year by Jato Dynamics). Too creative? For marketing people in search of the smallest incremental difference to turn into a matter of life or death for the target group, lack the understanding of sustainability or choose to ignore it, the message often leaves Planet Reality and the result is an ad like the one for now-defunct car company Hummer, which claims its cars are “Thirsty for adventure. Not gas.” (The average fuel consumption being “only” 17 l/100 km). It’s a balancing act.

Effective therapy

I was asked to talk about the divide between sustainability and marketing at last year’s SB conference in London and I didn’t want to be the critical observer sitting with my arms crossed and mumbling that the world is shit. I wanted to offer a comforting word of advice when really I had none, so I did what you do when you don’t know the answer to a question — I googled it. I googled “Couples Therapy” and up came “5 Principles of Effective Couples Therapy” by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I want to share those 5 principles with you, because their universal message connects with our silo thinking. I’m sure you’ll recognize some of them and do remember to share them with your significant other in marketing or sustainability: 

Principle #1: Change the view of the relationship

You should stop playing the blame game. You are instead urged to understand the relationship for the situation that it is in and learn how the other party interacts.

Principle #2: Modify dysfunctional behaviour

Change the way in which you interact with one another. This means ensuring that there is no physical or psychological damage occurring.

Principle #3: Decrease emotional avoidance

Keeping private feelings to yourself will certainly cause further problems in a relationship. Growing emotionally distant is a dangerous place to be when trying to make a marriage or relationship work. You should focus on feeling more secure about being open and expressing feelings.

Principle #4: Improve communication

Learn how to communicate with one another effectively. You should also consider which types of communication might be more effective considering the unique situation.

Principle #5: Promote strengths

Pointing out individual as well as relationship strengths assists in getting more enjoyment out of a relationship. Such a large portion of therapy focuses on problems, so rediscovering strengths assists you in staying positive and acknowledging the good.

I do hope these 5 principles will be the beginning of planetary bridge-building and the first steps on a healing journey that leads to a strong relationship with a shared vision. And if you can’t use these 5 principles in your work life you can always reuse them at home — that’s sustainability for you. Good luck with a brighter relationship and hopefully the beginning of a brighter planet. 


 Thomas Kolster is the author of the book “Goodvertising”; the most comprehensive book to date exploring communication for good. As the Director of the Goodvertising Agency, he’s helping companies, non-profits and agencies understand this new reality. This year Thomas founded WhereGoodGrows; the world’s first… [Read more about Thomas Kolster]