Greener Marketing: The (New) Age Of Brand Purpose

In this review of Greener Marketing, a book by John Grant, I will offer food for thought on the basis of concepts that I found particularly interesting and challenge the reader by asking the question: how do we accelerate a transition? Today, things change, but too little at a time, how can we improve this?

Let’s start with the concept of the consumers. In his book, Grant states: “We must apply all the tricks of marketing to bring people on the same page, to wake them up, make them enthusiastic, share delight, and push for change“. As far as I am concerned, this is a call for encouragement. Today, we have access to much data and research that ‘comforts’ our hopes.

However, there are also more critical consumers that see beyond these communication elements and pay attention to misleading advertising and greenwashing initiatives. They want companies to commit to solving the current issues in society. Even though much of the research advocates for change, in reality, customers continue to purchase ‘unsustainable’ products.

The NYU Stern Center analyzed the sale performance of goods that had a ‘self-certification’ of sustainable packaging. They discovered that this was the case for 16.6% of all goods sold in the US in 2018, and even more, sales of these products were growing 5.6 times faster.

In 2019, data provided by Nielson showed that only 10% of the total amount of retail sales is considered relatively sustainable, while 36% of brands promote a contribution to a green lifestyle. This means that there is a large gap between intention and action. Even more, Grant introduces the phenomenon of rebound effects. This means that even though it makes a difference where consumers choose to spend their money, as some products and services have a higher ‘carbon footprint’ than others, he believes that “the only real act of green consumption is to not buy” (p.126). This is a call for a boycott!

Grant’s initiative supports this with their new XR campaign, inviting the public to a fashion boycott that lasts 52 weeks (one year), pledging to refrain from purchasing new clothing and fabrics, and learning to appreciate what you already have (p.159).  I wonder how other brands will react to such a provocative call.

Corporate Responsibility and The Paradox of ‘Purpose Driven’ Communication

This brings us to the topic of Corporate Responsibility. In his earlier Green Marketing Manifesto, Grant concluded that ‘green marketing’ is essentially about “making green things seem normal, not making normal things seem green”. 12 years later, Grant points out the need for transparency, in business practices as well as in communications: “As markets become more transparent, brands will not be able to live off the perception that they are doing good unless they are making substantial contributions”.

However, among many of the examples he describes in his book, there is a considerable paradox present.

For instance, the company of Pepsi wants to address obesity as a global problem but “to address the obesity crisis you need to move to one biscuit a day” (meaning to reduce sugar consumption).

Another example is when Coca-Cola wanted to reduce its environmental impact, it launched a campaign in which they encourage people to recycle their bottles, yet they produce more than 100 billion single-use plastic bottles a year making them responsible for an enormous amount of plastic waste.

Diageo aims to empower communities within emerging markets by training a new generation of bartenders, nevertheless, the company produces alcoholic beverages that “if one were to calculate the net contribution to society, its business would be highly controversial”. (p.99)

These three marketing campaigns appear to be initiatives that substitute for meaningful actions. The paradox, however, is that these purpose-driven campaigns are relatively small parts of the overall business model. Therefore, it becomes increasingly more difficult for consumers to be informed about the true purpose behind the persuasive strategies of companies, as well as consciously choosing what to buy, and from whom.

Do The Right Thing: Sustainability Is The Right Thing To Do

The following ‘plea’ struck me as particularly profound and heartfelt: “One key element for marketers and agencies working on sustainability is that you have to set the record straight. This is not easy to do. We have to eradicate cynicism from marketing and adopt sincerity. It is not what we do, or even how we do it, as much as why we do it.

Sincerity means that we want to change – not just because the public is demanding it – but because it is the right thing to do, consistent with basic human values.” Tony’s Chocolonley, Divine Chocolate, Karma Cola, and Nudi are good examples of brands that act according to human values. Unfortunately, when it comes to big companies it seems difficult to find true authenticity.

Consider the case of Ikea, which Grant defines as a “Net Good” company (i.e. part of those businesses that are responding to the crisis with a shift from sustainability – Not Bad – to purpose – Net Good). We know that Ikea became the target of investigation when setting up a considerably complex business system. Even though it is entirely legal, the system was questioned for extracting a billion euros from funds within the nations it operates, according to the European Greens report.

The question that arises is: how would an informed consumer react to such “fiscal juggling”? This goal seems like a pipe dream that everyone (agencies, companies, NGOs) chases after (and exploits), rather than a real paradigm revolution.

“The old marketing culture has co-opted the idea of having a brand purpose. However, the products are too often elaborate nonsense, or inhuman services, designed to cost as little as possible and cause incalculable damage in their supply chain. The advertising strategies around these products/services are designed to compensate and create the illusion of humanity.” 

Greener Marketing: Doing More, Saying Less

Confronted with such realistic standpoints, perhaps there is no other solution than to avoid advertising products that are harmful, as Naresh Ramchandani proposed in his research.

Grant suggests that “a correct response at this critical time is to do more and say less“. From a communications industry professional perspective, a question arises: how can a creative agency, a media center, or a publisher turn this wise suggestion into an opportunity?

Grant’s answer seems to be,

“There is no way we can soften the message and offer a comforting illusion that we can go on as we were or simply with a few tweaks. This is not just about marketing. Our role as marketing professionals in many situations is to provide comprehensive and truthful work, bringing people along with us.”


*written September 2020, review updated January 2022.

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