The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Responsible marketing
The authors call for future marketers to engage in marketing activities that are purposeful and authentic. Crucially, it is important to know how to execute marketing strategies that balance profitability with environmental stewardship and social impact. Therefore, developing and implementing responsible marketing education initiatives is imperative. They develop a ‘3e’ framework (engage, enhance, and enact) to facilitate the implementation of responsible marketing education initiatives and experiences. Specifically, it is important to engage in paradoxical and systems thinking, enhance classroom dialogue through values and purpose-based conversations, and enact experiential learning to bridge the theory-practice divide through partnerships with industry, non-profits, and communities.

Marketing is considered a contributing force to the many social and environmental ills that face the world. Not least because it has come to work primarily as a vehicle for increasing consumption of goods and services, with profound impacts on social, economic, and environmental outcomes (e.g., rising inequality, climate change, increase in waste). As far back as 1969, the paradoxical nature of marketing was highlighted by Kotler and Levy, who suggested that marketing can be both harmful and helpful. We take the view that marketing and its characteristics, if re-oriented, can be a force for good and helpful to the planet and the broader society.

Characteristics of marketing and being responsible

The fundamental characteristics of marketing, such as understanding customers and their requirements, differentiating products, and developing convincing communications, are important to combating global challenges. For example, the value (in the broadest sense, for society and the environment) a product or a service provides to customers can be more suitably expressed. Effective communication, essential for conveying such messages of wider value and driving action, is critical for enabling behavioural change that is beneficial to society.

It is possible to position and differentiate a company’s products and services to enable and encourage ‘better’ consumer choices based on responsible or socially conscious attributes. However, with the rise of ‘woke washing’, inauthentic marketing, and the volume of marketing communications fuelled by digital methods and artificial intelligence (AI), the credibility of marketing and marketer behaviour is challenged. It is essential, therefore, that good marketing practices are followed and false or misleading claims are rooted out. Specifically, a company’s differentiating strategy must be responsible, authentic, and genuinely aligned with the organisation’s values, purpose, and actions rather than a superficial marketing ploy.

Marketing also has a key role to play in reducing inequality. This may occur because of an unfair distribution of resources, but it must be addressed by providing equitable access to consumers and beneficiaries, particularly those who may be poor and vulnerable. This work is grounded in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the most credible framework for addressing sustainability, particularly SDG1, which advocates for the elimination of (extreme) poverty. All the SDGs represent core themes in marketing and the work of marketers, and we suggest that if marketing can increase consumption, it can also decrease or rethink consumption (circular consumption) and create wider value, particularly by promoting more sustainable, circular models of consumption, as advocated by SDG12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production).

Responsible marketing and responsible marketing education

We view the above positive role of marketing in society as Responsible Marketing (RMkt). RMkt considers the broader stakeholder perspective in its marketing practices and aims to move beyond the making of profit as its primary function. For example, a company adopting an RMkt approach would be asking the following questions: “What good does our product or service provide to society or the environment? What harm could our marketing practices do to our suppliers or other stakeholders? Are our promotional strategies ethical and transparent? How can marketing add value by re-imagining societal challenges (such as poverty, climate action and gender equality) as marketing opportunities? And how is it ethically possible to make profits whilst addressing some of the challenges?” RMkt can proactively adopt the SDG framework (environmental, social, and economic) to provide a lens for responsible marketing tactics and strategies. Additionally, RMkt emphasises an individual marketer’s responsibility to go beyond their customers to identify and understand stakeholder needs as a basis for addressing the SDGs.

However, if RMkt is to become mainstream in marketing practice and for it to be able to be part of the solution to the global challenges, it is imperative that future marketing practitioners (current marketing students) engage in Responsible Marketing Education experiences (RMktE). It is essential that we develop future marketing leaders who can wrestle with the paradoxical nature of marketing and engage in activities and practices that genuinely advance responsible marketing principles. There is clear evidence for the ‘RMktE’ imperative as a critical consideration for the marketing discipline, grounded in the tenets of Responsible Management Education, which emphasises the holistic development of managers who can navigate the complex, paradoxical nature of business in service of sustainable and equitable outcomes. For example, Voola et al. (2024) have called for marketing educators to engage in incorporating the SDGs in marketing education as it is both urgent and imperative.

To facilitate RMktE, we adapt and explain the Engage-Enhance-Enact framework (Tomasella et al., 2024). This 3E framework is iterative in nature, where Engage and Enhance focus on broader discussions of RMktE, which provides the foundation for enacting RMktE.

THE THREE E FRAMEWORK FOR RESPONSIBLE MARKETING EDUCATION

Engage

Engaging with the SDGs

The importance of the SDGs, and specifically SDG 12 – Responsible Production and Consumption, has been noted. For RMkt, it is essential that marketing and marketers engage with the SDGs beyond SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), which is rooted in the economic dimension of the SDGs, in order to re-frame and broaden the narrative around the evolving role and responsibilities of marketing. For RMktE this will mean the SDGs become more central to the language of marketing and the practices and priorities of marketers and marketing educators. Within RMktE, this will also require adopting a systems thinking perspective that recognises diverse stakeholder views and the processes of value creation and transfer – beyond the perspective of just the organisation and consumer. RMktE also requires a critical perspective, where multiple though paradoxical things may be true and achievable. For example, different or diverging priorities, such as profitability and sustainability, reconciled and progressed in tandem.

Paradoxical thinking

Paradoxical thinking requires reflection on priorities and revisiting the purpose of both marketing and the organisation in terms of what we teach and practice. Such reflection seeks to recognise and critique current/traditional growth models (that simply focus on profitably satisfying customers’ needs) whilst highlighting the benefits of an orientation towards different purposes, objectives, measurement metrics and alternative consumption models. This shift recognises and emphasises marketing’s important role in raising awareness about necessary behavioural change. Awareness is a key initial step towards generating the ‘will to change’ current unsustainable practices. and it is founded on communicating the new narratives/ messages highlighted above.

Problem analysis and problem-solving

Problem analysis and problem-solving are inherent to RMkt and RMktE. Not least because we may see the problems associated with, for example, digital marketing and social media and their transformational impact, both positive and negative, on consumer behaviour. Recognising the challenge(s) posed by the selection of sources for news and information in a world where consumers are disengaged and have a general lack of time will become the fuel for the creation of more effective and impactful communications. For example, these challenges have resulted in the growth of social media wellbeing initiatives.

Enhance

Importance of calling in RMktE

To enhance RMktE, it is imperative that educators and students focus on purpose and calling. In marketing, the focus has been on what (e.g. products), how (e.g. via social media) and where (e.g. which segment). However, the ‘why’ of marketing has not had much focus and we contend that this is a crucial aspect of enhancing the authenticity of RMktE in the marketing curriculum. This ‘why’ is related to both the ‘calling of the individual student’ as well as the ‘purpose of the organisation’.

Calling relates to the “positive and generative manifestation of the connection between people and their work that scholars have studied” (Wrzesniewski, 2012, p. 45). A focus on calling provides the basis for marketing students to develop their ‘why’. Additionally, a journey of identifying one’s calling allows for identifying key values that are important to the individual, providing guidance on what type of marketer current marketing students want to become. Do they want to be a marketer who challenges current marketing practices, which are detrimental to society, or drive new marketing practices that proactively attempt to mitigate the social challenges? If marketing students want to challenge the status quo and embrace new ideas, they will need to strive to understand their calling because they will encounter resistance from organisations and/or managers. Understanding one’s calling provides a basis for being courageous and motivates the individual to continue to advocate for better and more responsible marketing practices to address the SDGs in the face of adversity.

Purpose and RMktE

At the broader firm level, identifying organisational purpose is becoming critical. For example, marketers have highlighted the importance of a purpose orientation or a “unified organisational logic (why we exist), identity (who we are), and strategy (what we do) for creating transcendent value for stakeholders” (Blocker et al., 2024). A key task of marketing students looking for meaningful jobs will be to understand their calling and link it with the purpose orientation of the firms they wish to work for.

Enact

We assert that RMktE should prioritise practical, reflective and experiential learning over theoretical abstraction to effectively prepare students for contemporary, sustainability-focused marketing challenges aligned with the SDGs. Such a call to enact is founded on the tenets of education for sustainable development, which advocates for local solutions to global issues.

SDG17 highlights the role of partnership working, engaging with industry, community and government partners, locally and more widely, providing students invaluable opportunities to bridge the gap between theory and practice, recognise interconnections and develop systems thinking. Immersive experiences, live case studies, simulations, and collaborative/joint projects enable students to embrace complex feedback loops, paradoxes, trade-offs, and synergies within sustainability-related challenges. This ‘hands-on’ approach fuels reflection and cultivates self-awareness and meaningful engagement with ethical considerations and values. Recognising multiple perspectives and managing tensions is necessary for designing responsible marketing solutions that create positive impact, so RMktE must respond.

Examples include

  • Live case studies where students develop sustainable marketing campaigns for local businesses, including charities and social enterprises embedded in local communities
  • Community outreach projects that raise awareness on SDG-related issues are particularly suited to increase advocacy and action for the goals in the long term
  • Product development work with local businesses focused on ethical and environmentally conscious principles
  • Providing consulting services to social enterprises, navigating ethical marketing dilemmas through simulations, or critically analysing corporate sustainability reporting

Engaging learners personally and professionally in this work broadens their competence and engagement with their own calling. Reflective journals are a valuable tool and bring value whether directly connected to assessment or not. Again, it will be important for educators to recognise and challenge current approaches and outcomes and show how smaller and more radical changes will support learner and marketing transformation.

Conclusions

We advocate that RMkt requires the behaviour of marketers to be normative-led, critical, and considerate of a systems-thinking approach to sustainability, particularly the SDGs. Such behaviour demands navigating the inherent paradoxes and tensions of traditional marketing, considering diverse stakeholder views, and designing marketing communications and strategies to drive positive social and environmental impact, not just profit. Effective RMktE goes beyond just introducing these concepts – it inspires a sense of individual marketers’ calling to the practice and achieves this through real experience – it leverages industry and community partnerships to provide experiential learning opportunities, equipping students with the ethical decision-making capabilities needed to address contemporary challenges aligned with the UN SDGs. By instilling this mindset in future marketing leaders, we can realise the potential of marketing as a force for positive, sustainable and responsible change.

RMktE clearly embraces the founding characteristics of marketing but recognises the wider role of marketing and marketers. It supports ongoing transformation and change by developing and empowering our marketing students (future marketers) to take personal and collective responsibility through their enhanced insights, competencies and purpose. We strongly believe it is imperative that marketing faculty and students engage in RMktE to allow for this mindset shift and be agents of change.


References

Blocker, C.P., J.P. Cannon and J.Z. Zhang (2024) Purpose orientation: An emerging theory transforming business for a better world. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, in press.

Tomasella, B., B. Akbar, A. Lawson, R. Howarth and R. Bedford (2024) Embedding the Sustainable Development Goals into higher education institutions’ marketing curriculum. Journal of Marketing Education, in press.

Voola, R., C. Bosangit, M. Polonsky, A. Rosenbloom and P. Goswami (2024) Editorial: ‘Embedding the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Marketing Education’, Journal of Marketing Education, in press.

Wrzesniewski A. (2012). Callings. In K.S. Cameron and G.M Spreitzer (eds) Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. New York: Oxford University Press.

The ‘Responsible Marketing Education’ Imperative

Ranjit Voola is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Sydney. He received the 2023 ANZMAC Distinguished Marketing Educator Award for his novel learning and teaching innovations related to the SDGs and PRME.

Richard Howarth is a marketing academic at Nottingham Business School (NBS), Nottingham Trent University. His research embraces marketer behaviour and competencies, education for sustainable development.

Barbara Tomasella is a Senior Lecturer in marketing at Derby Business School and Fellow of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability. Her research interests include education for sustainable development applied to marketing.

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