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Conspicuous non-consumption

‘Consume less’ is becoming a much-repeated sustainability mantra. How should marketers respond to that?
Sometimes, the liberal consumption of the new, sleek and smart implies the retirement of whole genera of the old, clumsy and absurdly mono-purposed
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

If there’s one thing that defines the relationship between marketers and consumers, it is the fact that we use that word – consumers. Yes, of course, we all understand that inside every consumer is a rounded human being, with a name, backstory, personality, context, quirks, flaws, worries and dreams – but there is no shame in coming clean about where our professional interest lies.

Some in our industry have inveighed against this reductive terminology, but there is a pragmatism to it, a sense of focus – and an honesty, too. We do want to achieve the profitable consumption of our goods and services – usually in one of two classic ways. We can encourage more consumers to choose our brand, and grow our market share, or, if our brand already dominates, we can seek to increase consumption of the category. Sometimes both.

Even when our briefs, brand models and strategy documents frame things with more circumspect phraseology – with talk of engagement, or insight, or purpose – underlying it is the truth that we have targets to hit and, in order hit them, we need consumers to consume.

It should feel awkward, then – frightening, even – to reflect on a trenchant, two-word fragment that came up again and again in the recent COP26 event, and which will without doubt be heard more often from here on in: ‘consume less’.

Take this at face value and there is nowhere for marketers to hide. It is as though ‘sustainable consumption’ has been deemed an oxymoron, with the mantra that consumption of any kind will do damage to the planet, and that once basic needs have been met, we are automatically into ‘excess’. So, just as we marketers are spinning the wheel of ‘more’, conservationists – and, increasingly, consumers themselves – are treading the path of ‘less’.

How will marketers respond to this pervasive new cultural counterforce? Differently, is the answer to that, since inside every marketer is also a human being, with that same, all-too-human, cocktail of proclivities and flaws.

There will be some who veer towards denial – accepting that ‘consume less’ is on responsible citizens’ lips and getting louder by the day, but somehow not linking it to their brand. Can being global CMO of Coca Cola really mean your job is now asking the world to consume less Coke? Surely it can’t? Except, logically, it would.

Meanwhile, canny marketers who know how to play the game – the ones who currently pop a ‘sustainable’ claim in all their positioning frameworks as a kind of hygiene tick – will work out a way to dress their brands in the clothes of anti-consumption. So, expect to see more of the technique of ‘reversal’, which is not entirely new. Unilever’s ‘Dirt is good’ shows how it’s done – with its implication that nobody really needs to buy Persil. Brands that pull it off will assuage consumer guilt, allowing them to pick up a pack of what takes their fancy while simultaneously engaging in an act of conspicuous non-consumption. It is a kind of marketing alchemy.

It’s not honest, though, so more thoughtful marketers will have to dig deeper and probe elsewhere. And I suggest there are only three places to try.

The first is to leave the discipline – to accept that a full and uncritical embrace of ‘consume less’ is incompatible with what marketers are here to do. Either that or take a salary drop and confine well-honed talents to the marketing of organisations, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, whose sole purpose is the elimination of waste and the mitigation of climate change.

sustainable consumption

The second route is to take the concept of ‘sustainable’ so seriously that every aspect of the brand offer is audited, assessed for its environmental impact and ruthlessly modified where found wanting. The target here is ‘circular production’, where raw ingredients, and methods of farming, manufacture and disposal guarantee to put as much back into the ecosystem as they take out. In the short term, and maybe the longer term too, one thing that won’t be taken out is elevated profits; this is not one for the fainthearted.

The third way to go – and it could embrace number two while it’s at it – is to hit back at what is, ultimately, a catchy but empty soundbite. Consume less of what? Of everything? What a dismal and dangerous world that would be.

Perhaps marketers need to be a bit bolder in their celebration of the extraordinary bounty of modern consumption and how it both simplifies and enriches lives. Who would wish to turn the clock back to the late 19th century, before the invention of safe analgesics? Who would replace their car with a couple of horses, and contribute just as many greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and see pavements once again 7ft high in manure?

And yes, a typical first-world consumer might well be on their fifth or sixth smartphone, but when was the last time they bought a torch, a map, an alarm clock, a newspaper or a camera? Sometimes, the liberal consumption of the new, sleek and smart implies the retirement of whole genera of the old, clumsy and absurdly mono-purposed.

People will not suddenly decide en masse to consume less. But they might take the mantra as a spur to break through the confusion they currently feel and vow to consume better. The answer for marketers is to hold our nerve, dramatically upscale our understanding of the issues, science and solutions – and think more.