What we have to say on effective marketing.

Al Mackay
The Age of Responsibility

A young marketing strategist is likely to be more sensitive than most to the familiar accusation that what marketers do is "try to sell people things they don't need." Just about any generational study you could find would back me up that nothing is more horrifying to a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Gen Y than the concept of working for a Big Bad Corporate with no soul. Selling people things they don't need is not only 'selling out,' but it's responsible for everything from ecological collapse to social malaise.

Yet marketing has never claimed to give people what they need. The point of marketing, as I see it, is to give people what they want. It is a service to humanity when, and only when, people want what is good for them. And in the new age of ethical consumerism, there is a distinct transition taking place - that what people and the world at large need is increasingly reflected by what people want. This puts marketing in the exciting position of being a catalyst for positive change in the world.

The causes of this shift are varied and numerous: most obviously, the global financial crisis has highlighted the dangers of excessive spending and borrowing from tomorrow. The state of our ecology has been opening our eyes to the irreversible destruction brought about by overconsumption and disposability. And interestingly, the changing profile of those with money (particularly the rising economic power of women and of non-Western cultures) is introducing a new set of values into the consumer landscape. There is a fresh consumer paradigm emerging of gentleness, care and community. And this paradigm is bringing about a whole new set of related consumer behaviours, desires and expectations. We have called this shift - to borrow President Obama's phrase - the "Age of Responsibility".

To illustrate this shift, let's look at the concept of sustainability. It has evolved from an alternative 'fad' sitting on the fringes of society, to being everybody's favourite communication idea. The problem, however, is that in today's constantly connected and digitized era, a communication idea is not enough. 'Greenwashing' may do more damage than good to your brand. Consumers want genuine responsibility from their brands. It's less about buzz words like organic and green, and more about integrating sustainability-thinking across the entire organisation. When GE repositioned itself around finding sustainable solutions for the planet, "ecomagination" was born and GE's brand value shot up by 25%. Apple has also assumed a leadership position in this area, overhauling everything to ensure their manufacturing processes - design, materials, distribution and recycling - do as little harm as possible. Indeed, cradle-to-grave design seems to be the new 'Golden Boy' of visionary brands who have identified the new consumer mindset as a massive business opportunity. 

Yet responsibility is not only the realm of grand international brands and global best practices. It starts out simply. Responsibility, at its core, is the notion that you need to take care of yourself and to take care of others. Recklessness is no longer cool. In South Africa, it can be felt by the man or woman in the street taking responsibility for their health, from being told everything there is to know about CD4 counts and nutrition by an enthusiastic teenager, to joining a gym. People appreciate and love the brands that genuinely help them, their friends, family and community. This is the reason for the popularity of campaigns such as OUTsurance's Help@OUT and Discovery Health's Vitality programme. 

Consumers are looking to return to what is familiar, nostalgic and trusted. There is a recalibration going on, to a new baseline that is as much to do with values as it is to do with value. Being generous and responsible are no longer things you do to fill some pages in your annual report, but central to the very fabric of today's favourite brands. 

As a marketer, you should ask yourself: how generous are you, really? Do you empower your consumers to take responsibility for their lives? And do you take responsibility for your products, your messages and your processes? 

You may just find that sexy and slick still work in your category, and long may humour and light-heartedness reign! But there is no denying that the age of responsibility has dawned. Tomorrow's leading brands have shifted their attention and directed their innovation toward what people really need. It just so happens that it's also what people want. And that makes marketing a truly magical place to be.


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