Marketers as Activists. A love letter to those who make marketing a force for good

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For the first time I came to understand that something valuable can be best understood not by its presence, but by its absence.

Kris Tompkins, President and co-founder of Tompkins Conservation, and American conservationist

Why am I so passioned about marketing? What value do I see in it? Why does marketing mean so much to me? 

I have been asking these questions myself many times, for so many years. There was a time when I didn’t have a clear answer. I think it is the long-term aspect of marketing that fascinates me. While finance and sales are more about ‘the now,’ marketing is all about ‘the future’. And I think it is because of the sophisticated complexity of the discipline. Everyone declares to be a marketing expert nowadays, but the reality is different: you need a proper education, you need to understand customer psychology and behaviour, you have to be a good storyteller, you have to be good at data in order to be a decent marketer. I’ve met hundreds people with a marketing title but only few of them are marketers in the true sense of the term.

Personally, I think it is all of it that made me to fall in love with marketing.

Or maybe not.

When Covid hit and the full European continent shut down – it was early 2020 – I got in touch with the founders of an inclusive institution in London. They were used to organise multiple in-person initiatives to support black women and women in business, including a large and energising annual summit in town. With the lockdown forcing all of us in our homes there was no way to organise anything in person, anymore. They started to look for alternatives, until it was clear that the alternative was just one: moving all operations online, designing a new membership program, and launching a series of virtual initiatives.

And so the institution started to look for new ideas. They contacted a few speakers. I was one of them – the power of networking. A couple of month later the first virtual conference was launched. I presented a master class in storytelling. 

I kept working with them for a while, and when they created an advisory board and asked me to be part of it, supporting the marketing and comms side, I had no doubts. The collaboration had its own peak with the complete rebranding of the organisation, moving from a nice but still amateurial design to a more professional visual identity.

What happened to this organisation – turning a dramatic challenge into an opportunity – wasn’t just an isolated case. During COVID-19 lockdowns, the ability to use marketing channels to communicate became vital for many organisations. Even if they no longer could rely on physical locations, they needed marketing and digital channels to continue their mission.

Beside helping someone in need – I’m still in contact with the wonderful people running this organisation and in April I attended their first post-pandemic in-person event here in London – I felt like I was finally putting my experience at disposal of who was in need. That was a completely different face of marketing, a perspective I couldn’t see until then.

That’s when I started to understand what I really love about marketing.

Adopting a personal purpose and being driven by marketing for good are wonderful things. As Mark Ritson puts it “They do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with short- or long-term profitability. We do these things because we believe in them, not because they will automatically help us to make more money. They might. They might not. But that’s not the point of purpose. Purpose is the point of purpose.”

That is what happened to me. Doing marketing for good was the only point. Nothing else.

Also, I wasn’t representing any brand at that time. I simply did my job with a special attention to inclusion, providing free education, supporting an institution in need. I did not donate any money, but I helped to save money. Taking the right choices, selecting the right partners, moving toward the right marketing and comms directions. 

This is what I call making marketing better and making marketing a force for good.

All marketer can make marketing better regardless if they work for themselves or if they represent a corporation. Actually, in the second case, more resources could be available.

What “making marketing better” means to me is to create growth opportunities that overcome geography, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic factors. It means to generate value in our business and to do our best to distribute it to others. It means advocating that marketing is a force for good and inclusive, existing primarily for the benefit of others. It means inspiring the world through better marketing by connecting people, brands to the best creative talent, generating job opportunities, providing support, educating new marketers, and sharing free digital knowledge. It means becoming, at all effects, a marketing activist.

Content marketing is a very effective tactic for this kind of initiatives because it helps providing useful information to prospects by design. Another way to do good for prospects when marketing to them is by simply helping them, whether they purchase from you or not. 

However, marketing activism can be much more than that.

I mentioned the individuals. What about the brands? I already wrote that it is time for brands to take a side. I also wrote that brand tend to sell diversity, but don’t practice it.

As pressure from people and governments mounts, and the need for urgent action to arrest the pace of environmental decline and a more egalitarian society becomes more apparent, brands have no choice but to decide which side they are on and accelerate plans.

At its heart, marketing activism is a practice that is rooted in both the mission and values of a brand and the desire to elevate and support social change movements. Brands that believe in marketing activism go beyond advocacy and work directly with the individuals and organisations on the front lines of changemaking.

Recent studies show a seismic shift in consumer’s perceptions and expectations of brands and social activism. Where once it was seen as detrimental for a brand to “take a stand” on an issue, the pressure is now mounting for brands to not just take a stand, but often take the lead.

Marketing campaigns and strategies can promote social good – not only to increase sales; companies have a social responsibility to do so. There are many examples of successful marketing campaigns that have created a positive societal impact. 

Marketers should make bold decision if they want to make marketing better. They – we – should leave or refuse to work for those brands who are not collaborating to reverse climate change; they should simply leave or refuse to work for oil companies, BP, Shell, Total, and all others. Marketers should follow the lead of the London National Theatre, that in 2020 ended its own links to Shell. This is not an isolated case and is already happening within many marketing and PR agencies. As communications and sponsorship experts, we should now recognise the inherent reputational risk of allowing BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil and any other large oil and gas company anywhere near major events and organisations.

And it’s not just that. It’s not just about the environment. We should follow Mark Ritson and Rand Fishkin lead; none of us should feel comfortable at conferences, events and panels where unethical brands provide speakers or funding of any kind. And we should refuse to talk at events where inclusion is not considered a priority – let’s just look at the speaker list before accepting any speaking proposal.

If our current employment allows, we should dedicate part of our own time to provide pro-bono help to no-profit organisations in need. And if the situation permits we should  advocate internally in order to have our brands supporting those institutions.

We should exercise best marketing practices transparently and consciously and encourage our partners to do so too. When in leading positions, we should hire people who share our core values and who represent cultural and ethnic diversity.

It’s never too late to start. But there is a lot at stake, and we should act soon. Doing marketing for good is a choice, as it is everything in life.

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