That marketing is a force for sustainability was the subject of a Chartered Institute for Marketing seminar I attended this morning, and presenter Victoria Hurth from Plymouth University has, with colleagues, drawn up a framework for assessing the true sustainability of a business organisation. It starts, she explained, with a new basic paradigm for marketers. The ‘sense and respond’ paradigm, which means marketers seek to understand their customers and provide products accordingly, is outdated, unsustainable and shirks their responsibility as the powerful creators of unsustainable needs. A new paradigm is the ‘relate and co-create’ approach, which is more about a focus on all stakeholders, including the customers of the future, and about working with these stakeholders to create sustainable business practices that meet everyone’s needs. Other parts of Victoria’s framework include taking leadership, focusing on the future, putting marketing at the heart of business practice and of course measurement. Her vision is that if embedded in business practice, the framework can create organisational culture change.
Victoria lingered on the subject of ‘needs’ for some time. There are various models which explain how ‘needs’ impact us. Essentially, humans have a basic set of needs which underpin all our activities, and particularly consumption. These have been sorted hierarchically (by Maslow, most famously), weighted differently and variously described and listed. But essentially they are fairly stable over time and geographies. In a sense, ‘needs’ are at the heart of traditional behaviour change thinking; the downstream, individualist version. People ‘need’ to eat energy dense food, use their cars to get around, go on long haul holidays and buy mountains of cheap clothing. Traditional ‘behaviour change’ works to combat these needs by persuading people that they don’t ‘need’ to do these behaviours after all and that there is an alternative. This route has severe limitations, however, and rather ignores the power of marketers in shaping the ways the needs are ‘solved’ in unsustainable and unhealthy ways.
Where my research interests intersect with Victoria’s is at this point. What if, as I would argue (vociferously), there is an alternative paradigm for framing the notion of ‘behaviour’ or ‘needs’ in the context of behaviour change, in form of Social Practice Theory. According to this SPT, behaviour is the function of societal structures; sets of meanings, competences and materials, for instance, which combine to frame the performance of different practices. Practices, such as car driving, food shopping and so on, are performed but are also entities for study and can be the focus of intervention.
Take the practice of eating breakfast as an example. It is performed every day by most people. It is societally structured by the materials (available foodstuffs), competences (cooking skills) and meanings (no one eats broccoli for breakfast) that make up the practice. People perform the practice within this set of elements and it can be studied as an entity by looking at how these elements interrelate and exist in relation to other, overlapping practices. However, breakfast cereals are so often not the best nutritional choices for us. If we try and persuade people that their ‘need’ for Crunchy Nut Cornflakes is misplaced, we are battling against a practice which is embedded in society and shaped strongly by a powerful marketing machine which has established a strong set of meanings – and products (materials) around breakfast that involves the message about ‘eating breakfast cereal as standard’ and that ‘low fat is best’. Neither of these are ‘true’ or indeed helpful, of course.
Thinking about ‘behaviour’ and ‘needs’ once again, it is possible to see how Social Practice Theory could enable us to study the role of marketing on the practices which make up our lives and to study the potential for sustainable business practices on changing these practices so that our behaviour becomes ultimately more sustainable, or healthy, or both.
Materialism is a good example. Research has identified that British children are some of the most materialistic in Europe . The ‘behaviour’ at play is over-consumption; the ‘needs’ are those of parents to provide material goods for their children to prove their worth or allay their guilt, and for children to own the latest stuff to mark out their territory in the social hierarchies of the playground. But what is just as important to focus on is the impact of business (i.e. marketing) on the practice of consumption, parenting, childhood socialising and so on. Marketers provide the material goods with which children trade popularity and parents seek to buy affection and allay guilt. Marketers provide the meanings associated with these material goods; that without the latest (fill in the gap) you are a failure in some way. The competences with which the material goods are associated are intrinsic; brand knowledge and knowing how to brag to your friends without sounding arrogant. (This is based on a research by Nairn and Spotswood, 2015 ). Thus, examining materialism through the eyes of Social Practice Theory highlights the role of marketing in creating the conditions in which unsustainable and harmful behaviour is performed. As such, it also highlights the role of marketing in creating a more sustainable business model in which these unfavourable fallouts are less likely to occur.
Perhaps it is simpler to look at this approach when considering a behaviour that is harmful to the environment, like driving. A ‘behaviour change’ approach might be to persuade more people to cycle. This has its place, but a sustainable marketing model would be to consider the future of burning fossil fuels at the present rate and realise churning out more cars in the present model isn’t going to deliver value to all stakeholders in the future. But people ‘need’ cars. They want them, demand them, so the ‘sense and respond’ model would have the industry producing more cars because that is what is demanded. But Social Practice Theory would allow us to focus on why and how the practice of driving has become so embedded in society, and realise that the ‘meanings’ associated with it are in large part created by the marketing of cars; they are sexy, fast, comfortable and linked to status and power. Simply meeting the demand for more car consumption, however, is an unsustainable model. Rather, car manufacturers and their marketing departments could be focusing on changing the meanings of the ‘practice of car driving’ so that the focus is on energy efficiency, technological longevity, safe disposal and so on. The meanings change, then so do the ‘needs’ of customers and the business model is sustainable because there will still be customers, resources and products (and therefore profits) in generations to come.
The relationship between ‘marketing as a force for sustainability’ and a sociological perspective is apparent if not developed. The next stage is to unpick this relationship and frame it as part of the future ‘behaviour change’ agenda.