Sustainability Marketing 2.0: Consumers, Communication, Conversations and Communities

sustainability marketingFrank-Martin Belz and Ken Peattie examine the role that online and social media play in sustainability marketing, and how they allow direct interactions between companies and consumers.

by Frank-Martin Belz, Professor at the Technische Universität München (TUM School of Management) and Ken Peattie, Professor at Cardiff Business School, and Director of the Research Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society (BRASS). Both authored the award winning book, Sustainability Marketing: A Global Perspective. Read their blog, Sustainability Marketing.

Online and social media play a vital role in sustainability marketing. They enable pioneers and performers to inform consumers about sustainability issues, and to interact with them. They can create transparency and build trust. Online and social media employed by companies in the area of sustainability marketing include (inter alia): websites; blogs; videos; Facebook; online idea competitions; and online communities. Whereas the former tend to be one-sided and informative, the latter are two-sided, allowing direct interactions between companies and consumers (see exhibit).

Sustainability Marketing level of interactionWebsites: Unlike mass media, which are limited to short bits and pieces (e.g. 30 second TV ads), websites allow companies to present their (more or less) holistic approach to sustainability marketing – beyond the desired consumer values. Online media have the potential to show the world behind the product, and what the company is doing to tackle sustainability issues along the entire life cycle. Take, for example, Birds Eye Iglo, the leader in the European market for frozen food: In addition to product information regarding ingredients and nutrition (calories, sugars, fat, saturates, salt) the company illustrates, where the products come from, how they are processed, and what they do provide sustainable food forever (“Forever Food”). Followfish, a niche player in the market of frozen fish, has a special feature on its packaging and website: By means of a tracking codethe consumers can see, where the fish was cultivated according to which guidelines (e.g. organic aquaculture in Vietnam), and which way it was transported. The results are presented with Google maps. Similarly, Patagonia, the world’s leading company in marketing sustainable clothing and gear, provide interesting and yet entertaining information about the world behind the textile products. The Patagonia Footprint Chronicles is a website, which allows consumers to track the impact of specific products from design to delivery (including text, images, and interviews). This type of information makes the whole product life cycle transparent. It reduces information asymmetries between producers and consumers. The alliance with credible partners (e.g. WWF, Rain Forest Alliance, Marine Stewardship Council, Fair Labour Organization), and the use of independent labels both build trust. Ultimately, the information provided on corporate websites transfers credence qualities of the customer solutions that companies provide into search qualities.

Blogs: To inform consumers and other stakeholders on a regular basis, a number of companies which take an active stance towards sustainability marketing, host a weblog for employees. Patagonia’s blog “The cleanest line” was established in early 2007 and contains hundreds of posts regarding environmental activism, footprint chronicles, innovative design, “soul of the sport”, and the company’s “uncommon culture”.
Frosch (= frog), “The most trusted brand” and one of the leaders in the German market for cleaning products, has a dedicated team of employees writing posts for the “Froschblog” on a regular basis. These employees might be considered as “sustainability brand ambassadors” within and without the company. The corporate blogs are read by an increasing numbers of employees, critical stakeholders, and interested consumers, but usually there is a hardly any interaction between the writers and readers. Very few people leave comments.

Videos: on channels such as YouTube may be informative, entertaining or both, providing some form of “infotainment”. They tend to generate more comments and even some kind of interaction in the form of comments and/or even videos as a response to previous videos. The Canadian company FritoLay makes extensive use of this online medium, promoting their sustainable flagship product “SunChips”. At the end of the selected video featuring the sustainability manager Helmi Ansari they refer to the Facebook group “SunChips” which has almost half a million members discussing the merits of SunChips (and the downsides of the “noisy” compostable bag!).

Online Idea Competitions: launched by companies who ask the general public or specific target groups to submit ideas, concepts or projects relating to sustainability issues in a given time period. The submitted ideas are evaluated by the participants of the idea competition and/ or a group of experts. Usually, some kind of monetary or non-monetary award is given to the winner(s). To reduce waste produced by youngsters McDonald’s Germany launched a campaign in 2010. A key element of the national campaign was an online video competition in which participants were asked to show how to get rid of waste in a creative way. The Mc Donald’s winner of the video contest were rewarded with a trip to the World Cup in South Africa:

Walmart, the largest retailer of the world tries to unleash the creative potential of students by running the “Better Living Business Plan Challenge”. The competition challenges students to invent sustainable products or develop sustainable business solutions and present them to a panel of Walmart executives, suppliers, and environmental organizations. In addition to gaining an audience with some of the top business and sustainability leaders in the United States, the winning team will receive $20,000 to invest in their business or product. The idea competition is communicated online (via Netimpact, Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin) to reach the target groups, while the students’ presentations take place in selected colleges all over the United States.

Online Communities:
There are a number of online communities dedicated to sustainable consumption (e.g. http://www.treehugger.com/ and http://www.utopia.de/). These communities represent far more than a potential audience to communicate with. They represent a source of expertise and insight about the sustainability agenda from which marketers can learn, and with which marketers can develop and test new ideas, strategies and campaigns. Forward-thinking online communities are invaluable inspirations and sources for new product development towards sustainability, but these are seldom exploited by companies.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Frank-Martin Belz focuses his research and teaching on sustainability innovation and sustainability marketing. He completed his PhD “Ecology and Competitiveness in the Food industry” in 1995 at the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland), where he also worked as an Assistant and Associate Professor. He has also had spells as a visiting researcher at the University of Gothenborg (Sweden), Boston University (USA) and York University in Toronto (Canada).

In 2003 he was appointed as Chair of Brewery and Food Industry Management at the Technische Universität München (TUM School of Management). His book “Sustainability Marketing: A Global Perspective” (written with his colleague Ken Peattie) won the prestigious VHB Award for the “Best Text Book in the Year 2010” from the German Business Research Association. It has been adopted in courses all over the world.

He also maintains the blog Sustainability Marketing, which further develops key ideas from the book, debates emerging issues on the sustainability marketing agenda and provides further materials, links and ideas for students, teachers and anyone else interested in marketing from a sustainability perspective.

Ken Peattie is Professor of Marketing and Strategy at Cardiff Business School and Director of the Economic and Social Research Council funded BRASS Research Centre based at Cardiff, which specialises in research into business sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

His research interests focus on the impact of sustainability concerns on marketing and corporate strategy making; social marketing for healthy and sustainable lifestyles; social enterprise and corporate social responsibility. He has published three books and numerous book chapters and articles in leading journals on these topics. His most recent book, “Sustainability Marketing: A Global Perspective”, (written with his colleague Frank-Martin Belz), received the VHB Award for the “Best Text Book in the Year 2010” from the German Business Research Association.

Ken has also recently completed a review of academic ‘Green Consumer’ research which was published in November 2010 in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources.

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