There are intentions and then there are actions. In this Spotlight India series, WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das examines what brands must do to achieve sustainable marketing and what it will take to convince everyone to embrace sustainability.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on sustainability marketing in India. Read more

“Sustainability” remains a consistent feature among the subjects that are searched for the most on WARC. It is a theme that we, at WARC, are big on too. Have you checked out our WARC Sustainability Hub yet?

Hence, to think of Sustainable Marketing in India as the Spotlight India theme was well, easy. And like everything else, the India story is always interesting. It is so because except for the fact that sustainability is a fine buzzword, personally, I too was interested to learn more about the subject from experts I approached. I wanted to understand how the marketing fraternity is looking at this, if it is walking the talk.

We are feeling the heat

India is experiencing one of the worst summers in over a century (temperatures in central and North India were the highest in March since 1901). If now isn’t the time to think a little seriously about climate change, then when is? Not just think but act too. And this takes me back to our Spotlight on Brand Activism last year. Didn’t we establish that noble intentions are excellent but it will always be action that counts? It is the same for sustainable marketing. Contributors to this edition make important points about how Indian brands should approach sustainability and even make it inclusive considering important social factors.

The idea about being environmentally responsible isn’t new. We have expressed our intent and to a certain extent, tried to back it up with action too but we must pull up our socks, and quickly. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised India will cut emissions to net zero by 2070. Lofty goal? Maybe. But at least, there is one. To get there requires a mammoth collective effort by every stakeholder, especially the citizens.

There are challenges galore. One among those that I particularly keep wondering about is the fact that India is a country that is still largely dependent on coal for its electricity. We are currently going through a tough power situation led by a coal crisis in the country. The heat wave is not helping. Just one not so tiny hiccup on the road to 2070. Never mind, 2070; the PM has also promised India will get 50% of its energy from renewable sources. We have less than eight years to go.

Miles to go, sleep can wait; making the idea mass

Looking from a marketing perspective, there is a lot to be done as well. Be it brands or consumers, we have our roles cut out. While brands have to look at getting more serious about their sustainable marketing strategy, the idea of sustainability needs to become more “mass” among consumers. Does the consumer do so proactively and do brands build more effective strategies? One will feed the other.

Our GWI report with this edition states how consumers are becoming more aware and responsible, getting more demanding of brands to take a stand on sustainability issues. However, is this a mass movement yet? At the grassroots level, it might not seem so. What is heartening is that today looks a lot better than yesterday, and for tomorrow, we hope.

Spotlight excerpts

This edition of Spotlight India gets a young voice among the contributors, always a terrific idea for a subject like this. Shagun Sethi, a Columbia University graduate, is passionate about sustainability and works extensively in that realm. In her knowledge paper, she talks about the social factor that cannot be ignored when we talk sustainability. According to her, sustainability needs to be inclusive while not ignoring cultural differences, socio-economic conditions and geopolitical divides.

Sethi says: “We have a chance to develop the second revolution of our world (post-industrial) in a more nuanced way and if we ignore these concerns, not only will we land ourselves in a majority-controlled environment (again) but we will also miss the ability to include indigenous solutions to the climate crisis, which may be far more advanced and backed by proof than solutions developed in labs.”

We also hear from leading insights, data and consulting company, Kantar. Paru Minocha and Macneil Chowdhury from Kantar bring the consumer perspective to the fore. They note how consumers need support from brands while embracing sustainability.

They write: “The role of the brand is to give consumers an emotional anchor for sustainability. Brands need to design chemistry between happiness and sustainability. Consumers must enjoy the process of making better choices and believe in the ethos of sustainability as an emotional call to action, not duty.”

Sanchita Roy, head of strategy at Havas Media Group India, is of the view that corporate India has a critical role to play here, making the evergreen point of execution backing intention.

Roy says: “As with any purpose-led marketing, authenticity is crucial. Executions and communications regarding sustainability must be a genuine, transparent and long-term commitment from the brand to have a chance at being effective.”

Wunderman Thompson’s Shaziya Khan is of the view that sustainability by itself is not a compelling enough benefit and that businesses need to do a lot more.

“For brands, this is a time for acting and not only talking. In effect, take actions that lean more into the circular economy. A circular economy, in contrast to the “take, make, dispose” model, seeks to rebuild capital whether financial, human, social or natural,” Khan says.

Marketing and communications consultant, Saji Abraham of Fighting Fit Brands, shares some words of wisdom for brands on their sustainability journey.

Abraham notes: “For a brand to be truly sustainable, it cannot simply focus on one part of the spectrum. Merely communicating a point of view while manufacturing or sourcing that adds to the burden on people or planet and is an incomplete job”.

Mehak Jaini from the DDB Mudra Group shares the four Cs of sustainable marketing – cheap, convenient, commercially viable and consciousness.

She says: “Is ‘sustainable marketing’ the oxymoron of the decade? On the one hand, sustainability would be to meet one’s own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs – the act of conscious choices, consumption and often carbon cutting actions. On the other hand, marketing refers to activities a company undertakes to promote the buying or selling of a product or service – the act of influencing people to buy more, buy new and buy often.

The trick lies in not being utopian in one’s approach but adapting it in a way that appeals to the lowest common denominator, especially in a country like India.”

The strategy team from 21N78E Consulting Labs delves into how India’s advertising industry can and should champion sustainability, both within the sector and by encouraging clients. Very importantly, they attack greenwashing, a major concern that exists.

The team writes: “While there is nothing wrong with brands actually trying to do their part for the greater good, brands need to be sure of whether they are actually committing to it or just wokewashing or specifically, greenwashing their communication. This is especially true when they are facing a generation of consumers who are extremely unapologetic in dragging or calling them out.

Globally, major corporations have been dragged by experts and consumers for failing to live up to their lofty sustainability promises or for sheer posturing. Closer to home, even mammoth corporations have been brought to their knees for washing their hands off environmental disasters.”

I also had the chance to speak to Zomato, an Indian brand that has been making waves in the food delivery and restaurant discovery space the world over. As a brand, Zomato has been doing a considerable amount of work in the realm of sustainability and it is only fitting that the team shares its view.

In its message to the fraternity, the team makes a rather critical point summing up its approach to sustainable marketing.

Team Zomato says: “Marketing can't work independent of core business strategy and sustainability needs to be core to the business. If it doesn't make business sense, it won't make marketing sense.”

The other brand featured in this Spotlight is technology major, Lenovo. The company is known for its initiatives beyond what is regular business, and sustainability is a cause it holds dear.

Abhishek Shah from Lenovo says, “sustainability goes much broader than just the environment. At Lenovo, we see sustainability through a wider aperture, that which also envisions a sustainable, brighter future for our customers, colleagues, communities and, of course, the planet.”

As mentioned earlier, sustainability is a theme that has got WARC excited this year. We hope you find this edition that presents the India perspective insightful. We also have another Spotlight dedicated to sustainability coming up that will focus on South-east Asia. It will surely be worth looking forward to.

Read more in this Spotlight series