Enough is enough! Why our planet calls for responsible online marketing managers

Written by: Jessica Könnecke

It was in the 20th century when the French philosopher Albert Camus questioned with his theory of absurdity the meaning of our existence denying all hope and faith. He pointed out the efforts of the society to find meaning and value in their lives, which was impossible for him to reach (Aronson, 2012). Comparing this absurdist picture to our society nowadays, which is driven by superlatives and people that all strive for success and recognition, his philosophy becomes as relevant as never before. We are all living in a world, in which being connected online and sharing information has become the norm. We are always available for others, watching out for unique possibilities, being afraid of missing something. But are we really striving for something useful that fills our lives with value?

Also online marketing managers are part of this dilemma. They are constantly pursuing to reach more users, get more traffic on the websites and increase the number of people using the product. In other words: They are influencing opinions and shaping perceptions with us as consumers being right in the center of it. For most of them, this equation of constant availability plus effort equals success seems perfectly balanced. What they mostly fade out however is one very important party: Our planet earth. What is right and wrong when it comes to making online marketing decisions? Have online marketing managers greater responsibilities than ever before?

By applying a three-element sustainable online marketing road map, online marketing managers can move away from selfish and purely firm-oriented decisions and develop a responsible and purpose-driven online marketing strategy.

You are the decision maker: The re-empowerment of online marketing managers

Nowadays, everybody speaks about the empowerment of the consumer online (Labresque, Esche, Mathwick, Novack & Hofacker, 2013). When talking about the empowerment process of the consumer it has to be made clear which source of power one is speaking about. Labresque at al. (2013) categorized four sources of consumer power: demand-, information-, network- and crowd- based power. All four sources connect consumers throughout the internet and provide them with a strong say online with regard to forming opinions, influencing buying decisions through rating systems and demanding certain types of products.  It is undeniable that through the development of web 2.0 the individual has gained an influential power online, which is extremely strong. In addition to that, “The presentation of self”, as Schau and Gilly (2003, p. 387) put it, has become extremely important. Consumers are “consistently performing coherent and complementary behaviors” not only offline, but also mainly online (Schau & Gilly, 2003, p. 387). This behavior results in massive social media usage and the shaping of brand identities mainly initiated by consumers’ posts, reviews and opinions. For online marketing managers this implied a gradually loss in control (Christodoulides, 2009). However, this loss in control was especially directed to controlling consumers’ opinions, the overall brand perception and the degree of predictability of consumers’ actions online.

Each online marketing manager still has the capacity to make his or her own decision on how/for which purpose to promote a product online by demonstrating the benefit for the consumer; the positive impact this product has on the whole society and on each of us. In other words: Integrating sustainable marketing principles into an online marketing strategy can re-empower an online marketer. By combining different forms of marketing, such as green marketing, social marketing and critical marketing, online marketers can tackle a sustainable online marketing strategy from various angles (Gordon, Carrigan & Hastings, 2011). The promotion of a transparent production process or the encouragement of customers to reuse products, recycle or repair them through social media are only two ways to integrate sustainable marketing principles. There are lots of other creative and innovative ways online marketers can make apply sustainable online marketing strategies that have a positive impact on all stakeholders and move some power back to the online marketing manager. The Swedish companies “Sysav” and “Myrorna” initiated a campaign by inviting the Swedish population to use only four items of clothing during one week. The campaign went viral and was soon spread over the whole Internet. The topic was heavily discussed and brought people to overthink their own consumption habits. This campaign illustrates well how an integrated sustainable marketing strategy can be built up upon critical and social marketing principles: They criticized the overconsumption of textiles and encouraged consumers to rethink their consumption habits.

Image 1: “Four Fit challenge”, source: Garbergs Malmö

Image 1: “Four Fit challenge”, source: Garbergs Malmö

It is crucial to bear in mind that an online marketer’s decision always affects two parties. On the one hand, they directly affect us, the consumers and on the other hand, they indirectly affect the environment, our space to live in. Hence, online marketing managers are ultimately the ones that control the conservation of the modern loop of consumption by engaging all of us to stay within a hamster wheel of consuming stuff. It is expected that next year, in 2017, nearly half of the worldwide population, namely 46.4 %, will purchase products online (Statista, 2016). This percentage clearly demonstrates the importance of online marketing and the need for sustainable online marketing strategies. However, thinking this situation even further it becomes apparent that online marketing managers are then actually the ones that possess the capacity and power to initiate a turnaround towards a more responsible and sustainable handling with our resources. They are the ones that can put the kibosh on unsustainable and short-term thinking practices when it comes to making online marketing decisions. Their importance provides them with the chance to become pioneers in integrating sustainability and responsibility into their daily tasks. According to Harvard Business Review, the diversity of tasks and responsibilities of marketing managers in general have drastically increased over the last years (Joshi & Giménez, 2014). Strategic decisions and the balancing act of implementing a good campaign with a tight budget reshaped the job of a marketing manager towards a multi-talent. This reshaping procedure also influenced online marketing, so that online marketing managers’ tasks include much more than just promoting a product online and convincing people to buy it. They have in the truest sense of the word reached the mountain peak, which empowers them with a huge influential potential on their fellow human beings. Hence, using this influential potential wisely and in a sustainable manner shifts part of the total empowerment of the consumer back to the online marketing manager and re-empowers them.

You are responsible: The need for redefining the responsibilities and creating purpose

“The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better“ (Robert F.Kennedy)

Nowadays, online marketing managers need to understand the scope their decisions have. Against this background it is not only crucial to be aware of the importance of their responsibilities, but they have to customize and redefine them. Looking at the origin of the word “responsibility” the overall scope of the word becomes noticeable. Laczniak, Murphy, and Öberseder (2013) deviate the word from the Latin expression “respondere”, which stands for “answer” and according to them it “implies accountability or being answerable for behavior” (Laczniak, Murphy & Öberseder, 2013, p. 92). The authors stress the fact that responsibility always means advocating your acting and overlooking the whole value chain. More concrete this implies that an online marketing manager’s responsibility does not end with the successful commercialization and promotion of a product, no matter through which channel or strategy, but their duty is to think outside the box and be aware of the consequences and influences their marketing decisions have on the market, the people and finally the whole planet. Consequently, redefining the responsibility within the field of online marketing leads to the integration of corporate social responsibility not as a tactic, but as the lead principle of each and every online marketer. All online marketing managers should “integrate ethical and societal obligations into the firm’s marketing activities” (Laczniak, Murphy, & Öberseder, 2013, p. 92). The German clothing brand “Jan n’ June” has build up its whole value chain upon ethical principles and makes each step transparent for the customer. Their whole online marketing strategy stands out by a transparent value chain and shows the consumer that they care about the impacts their products have on our planet. The fair fashion company realized that they have a certain responsibility in terms of the people that produce the clothing, but also regarding the resources they use. With their so-called “Eco-ID” they make the whole production process of each single clothing item totally transparent for the customer. Consequently, a transparent and sustainable company like Jan n’ June has not only managed to redefine the online marketing manager’s responsibilities, but to ultimately create a real purpose-driven brand. What online marketers have to understand is that by broadening their perception of their own responsibility they have towards all stakeholders they will automatically help the brand to become more valuable and definitely more purpose-driven.

Image 2: “Eco-ID of the dress Hati Velvet”, source Jan n’ June

Image 2: “Eco-ID of the dress Hati Velvet”, source Jan n’ June

You are versatile: Applying a pull marketing strategy through shared value

In practice, the execution of a responsible, purpose-driven and sustainable online marketing strategy can certainly pose a challenge to online marketers, especially if it is new to them. What can facilitate this process is the application of a pull online marketing strategy. In online marketing pull strategies are per se nothing new. With the aid of social media companies can easily engage people to take part in brand-associated activities without pushing them directly. Porter and Kramer (2011) developed the concept of shared value “which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges” (Porter & Kramer, 2011, p. 4). According to them “a shared value lens can be applied to every major company decision” (Porter & Kramer, 2011, p. 16). Therefore an online marketing manager can build up a sustainable online strategy, which is based on the old-school pull marketing theory, but seen and developed through the shared value lens The German fashion company “Jyoti – Fair Works” is a good example for an online pull marketing strategy. They initiated a campaign that encouraged the customers to raise questions about the production process or anything else that was related to the fashion company in form of Facebook comments. Jyoti would then select four questions, which are directly forwarded to the female Indian seamstresses and let them answer the customers’ questions. Through establishing the contact between the customers and the workers in India, the company realizes a much closer connection between the product and people. Customers can really experience the impact the product has, whereas the employees in India receive appreciation and gratitude for their work.  This is exactly how a responsible and purpose-driven online marketing strategy can look like. There is no need for extraordinary budgets or high-tech media; the most important ingredients are creativity and a responsible mindset. 

Image 3: “Ask those who made your clothes. Q & A with the Jyoti Team”, source: Jyoti – Fair works

Image 3: “Ask those who made your clothes. Q & A with the Jyoti Team”, source: Jyoti – Fair works

What remains is the own level of commitment of each online marketing manager

As the worldwide population is constantly growing and so does the world poverty, it is up to us, in the developed countries, to intervene. Not each online marketing manager can be a superhero and direct their whole lives towards the effective fight of the United Nations Millennium Goals. That would be by far too unrealistic. There is no general manual, which classifies decisions into right and wrong. But what each of them can indeed do is to commit themselves towards a responsible handling of resources and people and be aware of the scope their decisions have because yes, online marketing managers have greater responsibilities than ever before. Not only did their range of responsibilities broaden, but also consumers expect companies to be purpose-, not only profit-driven. Hence it is an online marketer’s task to also integrate this expectation into all online marketing activities. No online marketing manager has the right to base a decision on a total neglect of common welfare without thinking of the impact his or her decision has. Consumers are only starting to think of the impact firms have on the environment. But already now online marketing managers have to ask themselves how this development will go on. What do consumers expect from them in the future? Will their responsibilities grow even more? In spite of everything, also the French philosopher Camus sees the light at the end of the tunnel and reminds us of our responsibility: “There is nothing but this world, this life, the immediacy of the present“ (Aronson, 2012). Go online marketing managers, go and sort things out!


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