Social Throwback 2021: Running a sustainable brand – 3 marketing lessons from a CEO

Shankar Prasad

When it comes to sustainability, not everyone is on the same stage, let alone the same page. As the sustainable products market and marketing reaches a turning point, Shankar Prasad, Founder & CEO, Plum shares 3 takeaways from his experience.

“Sustainability” is a much-abused word today, and especially in the consumer goods space. As an extreme example, on more than one occasion, my initial nods of agreement when some overly financial types talk about sustainability have turned into looks of amazement when I realize that “sustainability” to them means being profitable/cash flow positive!

Add a lot of half-baked science, expedient news reporting, and millions of dollars of PR and marketing monies (including from brands like us) – and you have more fuzz than facts when it comes to sustainability.

But the good news is, people are sitting up, thinking, and are collectively making millions of small choices every day in the right direction, which will (hopefully) eventually ameliorate the damage that consumerism has wreaked on our environment. At Plum, while sustainability has been part of our Four Core values from the beginning, we have a very long way to go before we can call ourselves truly sustainable.

Here are 3 things we’ve learned when it comes to marketing and communication surrounding sustainability. 

1. Sustainability Is A Journey, Not A Destination

What is true sustainability? Think of a well or your bank account. Unless something’s replenished, it’s not going to be sustainable. When all we do is consume, consume and consume, how do we replenish as much, if not more, than we consume? While in resources like water it’s possible to do so, in some others like petroleum (where plastics are made from), it’s not that easy to reuse or recycle everything to create a circular system. So, it’s important, to be honest with consumers and tell them that we are on this journey together, and telling them that every small step counts, as opposed to creating a “breasting the tape”, “the game is won” imagery every time we do something on the sustainability front. 

2. Not Everyone Is On The Same Page, Or Stage

As mentioned before, sustainability is poorly understood. And there’s a lot of noise around being “eco-friendly”. Therefore, not everyone’s on the same page here. India is still in its early years of consumerism – and to think of India as a homogenous market is the biggest mistake marketers can make. In certain segments, there is a question mark on the “why” of sustainability, in addition to the “what” of it – leave alone the “how”. Even the ones who understand the “why” differ when it comes to how far they are willing to go in making sustainable choices. After all, India is still a very “what’s in it for me” market. This is changing, but, much more slowly than what the echo chamber of your social media feed makes you believe.

Here again, it’s important to recognize the diversity within one’s consumer base and talk to them in ways they understand, never forgetting that every step taken towards sustainability, even if a small one, is worth it.

Also Read: Secrets from the Mother’s Purse: Tips from Ba No Batwo for marketing a sustainable brand

3. Mix Delight With Sustainability

Much like with healthy food (tastes blah to most people), some aspects of sustainability don’t mix well with delivering functional or sensory delight. For example, paper packs or glass packaging don’t always take eCommerce transit well. And we’ve been wanting to eliminate shrink-wrap on our packages for a while now, but consumers want tamper-evident packaging in what is still a trust-deficit market. All in all, it’s tough to balance delivering delight with true sustainability. What’s important is to find the right balance and keep tilting the scales in favour of sustainability a little bit every day. As technology advances, it’s thankfully becoming a little easier to balance out the two. Brands at the forefront of this change will hopefully succeed in building a community of consumers who love what they consume, and at the same time, realize that they have to walk the talk on sustainability. 

And hopefully, we will get to a point where sustainable living becomes a habit, and sustainability becomes a “ticket to play” for brands, rather than a “holier than thou” call-out. After all, the planet needs all of us to do the right things together – and the sooner the better.

The article is penned by Shankar Prasad, Founder & CEO, Plum as a part of Social Samosa’s Social Throwback 2021 series.