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Arif Durrani: Is marketing at a crossroads?

Unilever's Keith Weed appeared to strike a chord this month when he peppered his keynote address at the Advertising Association's Lead 2012 summit with calls for a more responsible approach to marketing.

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Pitched squarely at those operating in and around adland, but embedded within a wider narrative that drew upon global trends in behaviour and consumption, I believe Weed might have captured the zeitgeist of the next decade.

Since the banking crisis and ensuing financial meltdown of 2008, questions have been raised about a corporate status quo that continues to place the pursuit of profit above all else.

Any doubts have not dissipated with reports of famine, war and health epidemics in some parts of the planet, or, closer to home, rising energy bills, spiralling unemployment, a housing crisis and looming water shortages. 

For Weed, it all adds-up to a backdrop companies can no longer ignore. "With capitalism being at a crossroads, I think marketing’s at a crossroads," he says. "We call people ‘consumers’, and for an industry that calls people consumers, I think we have to think a lot harder about consumption, and the impact of consumption in a resource restrained world. As the cliché says, 'if you’re not part of the solution, you're part of the problem'."

It was powerful stuff from one of the chief strategists behind the world’s second largest advertiser, and, after years of companies paying lip-service to corporate social responsibility (CSR), it's starting to feel like a concept whose time has finally come.

Industry sceptics will note that 2012 also marks the 20th anniversary of Greenpeace's first 'Book of Greenwash', in which many companies known for talking a good game around social responsibility were placed under the microscope to devastasting effect. So what has fundamentally changed since then?

Quite simply, social media. The birth and unprecedented uptake of the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube within the last 10 years has served to connect and empower consumers like never before; and it’s forcing businesses to be more socially responsible. 

Good business is better business 

This power shift has been brilliantly encapsulated in 'Who Cares Wins', a new book by David Jones, the global chief executive of Havas. The 45-year-old marketing leader, who in 2010 advised prime minister David Cameron on his election campaign, believes the rise of social media and social responsibility are "totally interlinked".

"Social media has given people an amazing tool to keep business honest, to share information and above all to create movements to support or bring down those businesses, leaders or governments that they do or don't 'like'," he says, "and all at dramatic speed."

His views are grounded in Havas research involving more than 50,000 consumers, including 2,700 from the UK last summer. The same insights have helped reposition Havas' media agency, MPG Media Contacts, around its 'Meaningful Brands' proposition.

The book identifies three broad stages of CSR, from the Age of Image (1990-2000), characterised by little or no substance to claims, to the Age of Advantage (2000-2010), when the smarter companies realised the genuine competitive advantage in delivering on those early promises, to today’s Age of Damage, poised to be an era where those not socially responsible will suffer.

He cites Unilever’s ambition to double the size of its business while halving its environmental impact as a sign of the times, and also the early success of Marks & Spencer’s Plan A commitments to tackle climate change, waste, raw materials, fairness through its supply chain and health issues.

Going forward, Jones’ advice to all marketers is to "be fast, be authentic, be transparent", noting how the slow, defensive corporate oil giant BP, complete with green flower logo and meaningless 'Beyond Petroleum' strapline, had failed at every turn during the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago.

Harness the power of social media and industry creativity

Of course, it’s still easy to be cynical. And in the unlikely event you need any help, look no further than another new tome, 'Brandwashed', from reluctant marketer Martin Lindstrom.

He claims to have been "profoundly disturbed" by the "range of psychological tricks and schemes" witnessed during more than 20-years working "on the front lines of the branding wars".

Dramatic? You better believe it. In 246 pages, Lindstrom charts one man’s battle against today’s Hidden Persuaders, and paints a bleak picture of an amoral, profit-led industry.

One chapter detailing the amplified power of ‘friend’ recommendations in particular, and their indelible impacts on the human brain, will be one Mark Zuckerberg hopes doesn’t receive too much publicity. However, even Lindstrom in his unflinching exposé is forced to conclude that the rise of social media promises to fundamentally change brands for the better.

He offers: "In our hyper-connected world of Twitter and YouTube and WikiLeaks – a world in which a single trick or deception or secret can be immediately broadcast to the world with the click of the mouse – the consumer is more empowered than ever. As a result, brands of the future simply must be transparent and live up to their promises."  

For Jones too, the future is clear: "In the coming decade, businesses that are the most socially responsible will be the most successful and will reap huge benefits from the power of social media, as employees, shareholders and consumers become passionate advocates for their brands and businesses."

The former Euro RSCG chief executive believes an industry used to using its creativity to change people’s behaviour to buy product A instead of product B needs to now rise to the challenge of making the world a better place. He offers: "I believe this is not only an opportunity but also an obligation for those of us in the creative industry and that we can use our talents to address some of the bigger issues facing the world."

If marketing really is at a crossroads, one thing it cannot claim is not to have any signposts.

Follow Arif Durrani on Twitter @DurraniMix

This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk

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