Sustainability: A Key Issue in Marketing

It's funny how marketing terms and concepts seem to come in from nowhere and spread like wildfire, so to speak. Terms such as "customer-focused," "the digital revolution" and "return-on-investment centric" are just some examples. The term and concept currently floating through the corridors of many marketing departments and more importantly many organisations is that of "sustainability." In many cases I'm happy to report it's more than just floating down corridors, it's manifesting itself as part of strategy. In fact even the bean counters are having to include it in reporting as specified by King III standards for corporate governance for listed companies. It's a promising start.

In layman's terms sustainability is basically "short term gratification" versus "long term payback." South African's are by nature more inclined to short term gratification as proven by our extensive credit or should I say debt issues. Companies are more inclined to make decisions based on short term profits rather than long term growth.

A quick Google search of the word yields a wealth of sustainability reports by many well known groups. In many cases it's been used to address specifically environmental issues, especially in the manufacturing and mining sectors, but addressing sustainability means more than addressing just one aspect of one's environment. It means creating a mutually beneficial partnership between the organisation and its stakeholders. Note not just shareholders but stakeholders. That includes staff, service providers, shareholders, the community and the environment. No small task by any means and yet some companies seem to be cracking it; Eskom, not so much but Woolworths, most definitely.

Eskom with its short term approach to electricity supply over the past few decades now finds itself in serious hot water - ‘nuf said. Woollies, however, having taken the concept to heart, have implemented recycling, donate surplus food to needy communities and even give financial advice via web podcasts for their financial services customers amongst other things. To what end? Well apart from the obvious positive impact on the community and their environment, Woolworths Holdings is one of the top 100 JSE listed companies.They also boasted a 4.3% increase headline earnings per share in their July 2008 year end financial report. As they say the proof is in the pudding and if you've ever tasted Woollies malva pudding, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

The point I'm trying to make is, apart from the fact that you should really try Woollies malva pudding, that from a marketing point of view, we're all too often focused on immediate initiatives to lift sales or increase profits instead of looking ahead and looking around. Whilst I am not all discrediting the need for focus on sales, we all need to make profit as a means for continuity, a certain percentage of our time also needs to be focused on activities such a product development for the future taking into account all the economical, environmental and social considerations.

Even corporate social investment (CSI) projects, which typically involve "giving back," take on a new dimension when considering real long term impact. In many cases CSI is a "have to" part of business instead of being seen as a mutually beneficial undertaking. We as marketers should be questioning what CSI projects can we implement with a view to getting return on investment as well as benefiting the other party?

Perhaps your new CSI project may deal with empowering unemployed people in your industry with skills which can then be utilised in your company or by your customers. Perhaps it's about looking at disadvantaged communities for new product ideas or perhaps it's even just getting consumers to recycle your packaging thereby engaging continued brand engagement and creating those warm and fuzzy feelings we'd like our customers to feel about our brand.

The fact remains that there are more companies and brands than ever before yet a limited number of resources. How are we as individuals, as marketers, as companies and even as a nation going to ensure that we stand the test of time?

This article was written by Lisa Steingold, the national marketing manager for Vega, The Brand Communications School. It originally appeared on