What Is Sustainable Marketing?

Since the turn of century, we’ve seen a significant shift towards a focus on the concept of sustainability, and largely how it applies to environmental issues. To be sure, nearly everywhere you turn there is a new discussion about environmental sustainability, and new methods being developed to implement across a wide variety of industries.

Sustainability, however, does not only go hand-in-hand with the environment around us. In fact, when found in a marketing context, it has a separate definition, one that can be utilized to develop a self-powered system of advertising with significant benefits for any company.

Sustainability in the Context of Marketing

Before we move further, consider first what the term ‘sustainable’ really means. Sustainable, broadly, has two definitions:

  1. Capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting resources; and
  2. Pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse.

Here, then, you should realize that sustainability, and, more specifically, sustainable market practices are not just about taking steps to appear more socially responsible or environmentally friendly. Instead, sustainable marketing largely involves an organizational commitment to creating long-term value. A sustained focus on long-term marketing value benefits the consumer and the surrounding community, which, in turn, benefits the organization as a whole.

Basic Examples of Sustainable Marketing Practices

What, then, are some common examples of marketing practices that could be considered sustainable? While this list is not exhaustive, the following practices create sustained long-term value that does not significantly exhaust the resources of the business:

  • Brand identity design, including vehicle graphics, packaging, printed collateral, photography, and infographics;
  • Content creation, which may include blogs, white papers, press releases, guides, eBooks, or other forms of content;
  • Loyalty programs;
  • Referral programs;
  • Social media outreach programs;
  • Web design and development; and
  • The creation of a social group.

Why are these considered sustainable? The answer is simple: they provide benefits to the consumer and the community, they continue to provide these benefits without the requirement of additional resources.

Unsustainable Marketing: A Contrast

Of course, it is much easier to understand the concept of sustainable marketing practices if the inverse is equally examined. If sustainable marketing practices allow for the continual use of resources, their unsustainable counterparts do the opposite: deplete the resources of the organization over a period of time.

The following marketing practices may have certain benefits and may work for awhile, but once the money stops, so do any of the associated benefits.

  • Coupons;
  • Media advertising, on TV, radio, magazines, or other forms of media;
  • Cold calling; and
  • Direct mail.

Why would these forms of advertising be considered unsustainable?

Consider the benefits to both the organization and the consumer; specifically, how long do they last? Unlike more sustainable practices, like content creation or organic SEO, which provide benefits for an indefinite period of time, or for as long as the organization exists, the unsustainable practices offer one-time benefits for a one-time payment. The organization must expend a set amount of resources for one of these methods, and, at the conclusion, the advertising stops. In this case, all the money spent on one form of advertisement won’t provide any lasting benefit, beyond its initial length.

Consider the use of TV ads. Any marketer knows that TV ads are expensive; however, they can be humorous, thought-provoking, or simply appeal to a wide range of emotions. And, for as long as the TV ad is running (and the payment continues), the business may see results but they generally fall short of expectations (even if the ad is well done).

But what happens when the ad is shut off? If the TV ad stops appearing, the organization will no longer see new customers at all, even if it spent heavily during the course of the ad’s run. Think about your own reaction to a TV advertisement; if you see it consistently, it may stick in your head for awhile. But let’s be honest – very few people remember TV ads that stopped running months ago.

Now, I invite you to re-read the previous two paragraphs and replace the word 'TV' with 'Radio', 'Magazine', 'Coupon', then 'Direct Mail'. You will quickly see why these methods of advertising are unsustainable.

So What’s the Difference?

The difference between sustainable and unsustainable marketing practices remains primarily in the scope of the benefits provided. As mentioned before, unsustainable marketing practices may bring in new customers; however, once the flow of money ceases, the benefits will cease as well.

Using the example of a television ad above, this concept can be demonstrated; once the money-flow stops and the ad is pulled, customers are no longer drawn to the organization. Put more simply: if people stop seeing the ad, they stop thinking about the business.

In contrast, sustainable marketing practices are designed to continuously reap a benefit, well after the initial money is spent.

Here, consider the example of a well-researched and well-written blog post on the company’s website. It will likely require an initial investment of both time and money to craft the post; it may be written by the business owner, or by another expert in the field. But once the post is completed, as long as it remains relevant to the target industry, it can continue reaping significant benefits, long after the publication date.

If the post is a useful resource, consumers will revisit it consistently, which, in turn, will benefit the company from the added exposure. And the benefits will only increase with the inclusion of additional sustainable marketing practices (for example, if the post is written using methods targeting organic SEO).

Why Sustainable Marketing is the Best Option for Your Organization

Not surprisingly, many companies find it difficult to stray from forms of unsustainable marketing practices and try out this new realm of sustainability. The reasoning is understandable; many unsustainable marketing practices are those traditional forms that have been used by businesses for decades, including coupons, TV and radio ads, and even cold calling. Moving away from these systems requires an entire restructuring of the way the organization views the concept of advertising.

But while the transition may prove difficult initially, it is, ultimately, an essential step to take for any business wishing to utilize the most efficient forms of marketing that promise long-term benefit for themselves and their customers.

Unsustainable marketing practices are simply that: methods that will deplete the organization of much-needed resources (read: money).

Wait - That Sounds Like Inbound Marketing

If you have been working in marketing for some time, you may already be familiar with the concept of inbound marketing, and how it may be used to gather the attention of consumers. In sum, inbound marketing is a practice wherein the business creates useful and interesting content, earning the attention of potential customers in the community; this is in direct contrast with other forms of direct advertising, through which the organization attempts to buy the customer’s attention.

And where on the spectrum of sustainability does inbound marketing lie? According to the discussion above, inbound marketing, with its provision of benefits for both the consumer and organization alike, is entirely sustainable; it aims to develop content for use by the consumer, which in turn creates a lasting relationship.

Sustainable Marketing in Practice: Check Out the Numbers

It is far too easy to tout the benefits of sustainable marketing over its unsustainable counterparts without providing statistics to demonstrate its use. But, in fact, there are plenty of statistics that help shed light on the strength of sustainable practices for businesses interested in long-lasting yields.

To begin, consider the fact that companies are three times as likely to see a higher return on investment on inbound marketing campaigns, a form of sustainable marketing, than outbound (1). This number alone highlights the significant benefits provided by this one form of sustainable marketing.

Beyond this, however, the statistics become more intriguing, and highlight a trend that sheds positive light on certain forms of sustainable marketing.

One source shows that 60 percent of customers say they feel more positive about a brand after reading custom content on its site (2); this custom (and sustainable) content could be a blog post or white paper that proves useful in some form to the reader. And furthermore, another source asserts that users trust branded content, particularly if it is shared. Specifically, a survey conducted by Kentico shows that “74 percent of the general public trusts content from businesses that aim to educate reader about a particular topic (3).” And customer trust is an integral part of a sustainable marketing strategy; it is a necessary component of a strong relationship between the consumer and the organization.

Finally, take a moment to contemplate the following statistics that may shatter previously-held beliefs about traditional forms of marketing:

  • 44 percent of direct mail is never opened;
  • 86 percent of people skip TV ads;
  • 84 percent of people leave websites with intrusive or irrelevant ads; and
  • 200 million people are on the FTC Do-Not-Call list and cannot be legally reached through cold calling (4).

What does this all mean?

Current and potential customers do not respond well to obvious and direct forms of marketing that appear staged and insincere. Instead, these individuals prefer to discover content through other methods. They also show a preference for content that has substance and use, rather than paid advertisements that simply solicit.

How does this affect you and your organization?

It would be incorrect to assume that traditional unsustainable forms of marketing will remain effective in the years to come. Just as the world turns to sustainable practices to save our environment, so too will the public gravitate towards marketing efforts with a focus on long-term and lasting benefits for all.

Don’t forget we’re always here to help as a full-service marketing agency focused on sustainable marketing. Never hesitate to give us a shout or, if you’re raring to go, fill out our website questionnaire.

Will your next marketing campaign create lasting value for your organization?


  1. http://www.stateofinbound.com/
  2. http://www.imaginepub.com/53-b2b-content-marketing-stats-you-should-know-in-2015
  3. http://www.kentico.com/company/press-center/press-releases/2014/kentico-digital-experience-survey-customer-trust-i
  4. http://www.conductor.com/learning-center/the-end-of-paid-media/
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