VC John, Accenture – The future of sustainability marketing

VC John, Accenture – The future of sustainability marketing Duncan is an award-winning editor with more than 20 years experience in journalism. Having launched his tech journalism career as editor of Arabian Computer News in Dubai, he has since edited an array of tech and digital marketing publications, including Computer Business Review, TechWeekEurope, Figaro Digital, Digit and Marketing Gazette.

Could you tell us a little bit about Accenture and your role within the company?

Accenture is a global technology and consulting organisation. And it’s divided into three markets. So you have North America, Europe, and then the rest, which are called the growth markets, collectively. 

My remit covers the growth markets, and it has two components to it. The first is as the sustainability innovation lead as part of the growth and strategy organisation. The second is the partner ecosystem lead for the Microsoft relationship. So a lot of my role draws from my 22 years of marketing experience. And I work with the firm’s leadership on identifying new markets, go-to-market strategies based on trends, and work with ecosystems to develop win themes that take into consideration not just the current addressable market, but markets that we might want to create together. There is a significant focus on driving collective social impact through our ecosystem footprint, too.

What kind of trends have you seen developing around sustainability marketing?

It’s really about how you raise awareness of the real issues that pertain to sustainability. 

Is it really enough to talk about the 1.5 degrees or should we, at the fundamental level, which is at the level of the individual, be concerned about changing behaviour for the better, because when people “want to” do something they are more likely to accept a new idea as opposed to people being forced to change behaviour through measures, often draconian ones.. 

Today’s approach to implementing sustainability measures, generally, is about taxing the middle class and trying to force this behavioural change, as opposed to working with people because the people have the power, whether we like it or not, to drive real impact. And they drive better impact if you recruit them to your vision, as opposed to imposing stuff on them that they don’t necessarily believe in. 

And that points to a study that we conducted globally, in which we interviewed different personas from housewives to students etc. And one thing that came through that global study for sustainability was that your average person understands sustainability in so many different ways than the one that’s imposed on them in terms of carbon in green. For some people, sustainability is being able to perpetuate tradition of their forefathers, because that means you’re caring for people, you don’t take people for granted, you take resources for granted, being a faithful steward of the environment, and so on.

It’s a far more beautiful sentiment to have than saying don’t drive your car because you’re going to contribute to carbon footprint. 

So I think sustainability marketing is really about having the gumption to change the narrative, to put everyday people at the heart of the message as well as the outcome..

Do you think individuals and organisations are genuinely starting to take sustainability seriously?

As with all global imperatives, we’re going to go through a process where there’s going to be vision casting, followed by set solution pitching, then some amount of regulatory policy implementation, and then some general adoption, followed by the vision coming to life. 

With regards to sustainability, I think, after the Paris Agreement, we are finally at a place where governments are being serious about the regulatory frameworks for making their industries and businesses accountable by reporting on their carbon emissions. And then, year on year, hopefully they will demonstrate that they are faring better at managing their emissions. For instance, we have the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive in Europe. And then you have the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act in Australia. 

And there’s going to be a whole slew of these regulatory frameworks and mandates that we’ll see governments release over the course of the next few months. But if you look at it from the point of view of the common man, I think we’ve got ways to go. 

It’s the millennial and younger people who genuinely believe that they can do something and, therefore, they stop eating meat. But is that enough? Probably not. There needs to be a very concerted effort to define what sustainability means. And also an understanding of what the common man and woman can do to, therefore, contribute to it and play a part in that agenda. I don’t think we’re there yet.

Have you noticed a difference in attitude to this topic, amongst individuals and companies, between the growth markets you’re working in and the rest of the world in countries such as the USA or the UK?

Most certainly. And the difference in attitude is due to a whole host of factors. 

Think about it this way, the growth markets is the engine room of the global economy, whether we like it or not. 

And the attitude of the growth markets towards the impositions of a sustainability regime or vision is generally in the ballpark of “hey, wait a minute. You guys are already developed. You’re already the first world because you’ve transitioned through the journey that we are now the beginning of or midway through and, therefore, to now tell us that we can’t enjoy what you guys enjoyed while you got to being a first world nation is unfair – especially because we are doing the grunt work.” 

How sustainable do you think digital marketing is?

To my mind, there are three dimensions that really matter – people, process and technology. Those are the three dimensions that will frame the sustainability ambition, and also help you measure how you’re doing against that sustainability ambition. 

So it’s not just the number of people you’re throwing at a particular process. It is about how well are they equipped to use faster, easier, cleaner technology? How can you reimagine processes so that you don’t spend as much time or resources to get from input to output? How can you repurpose, recycle, reimagine assets, as well as process, for the betterment of not just yourself, but also your ecosystem? 

And then of course, from a technology point of view, how do you end up balancing federated technology investments with common platforms that you can co-tenant or multi-tenant on with your ecosystem to get the best value while reducing your potential carbon footprint?

Are there any companies in Asia that you think are doing a particularly good job of focusing on sustainability?

The answer is no. Simply because there isn’t a frame of reference to say this one’s doing better than the other one. 

That’s why it behoves the CMOs to come to the fore to actually help frame the problem to start with and then look at what part of the problem can be solved by marketing. Then have an industry marketing professional standard, which CMOs can then drive by, which will then help us understand over the years how we are contributing to the sustainability agenda. But I don’t think we have anything that resembles a concrete framework yet. 

And, to that extent, if we see anything happen through marketing campaigns, it can end up being more about the brand than about driving business impact through sustainability. For example, there’s a brand called Muji, a Japanese department store, primarily offering clothes, footwear and some kitchenware and furniture. They run some very interesting recycling and sourcing programs that engage their ecosystem in creative ways. It still feels like a CSR or sustainability brand building exercise. 

What advice would you give to marketing managers or companies that want to focus more on sustainability with their marketing?

Considering that most marketing happens as a result of an ecosystem coming together, I think every constituent of the ecosystem has a role to play, but primarily the agency and the CMO. So the agency network and the CMO are both sides of the same coin, but both have a role to play. For the CMO, it’s about ensuring that he has the right flying formation with partners who are incentivised to run a sustainable operation. 

Number two, the CMO has to reward campaigns, processes and talent upskilling that help accelerate the sustainability agenda – not just for themselves, but also for their clients and potentially their consumers, their targets.

And number three, work in concert with their peers in the industry, to develop and establish something of a baseline of expectations in terms of what a successful CMO would look like, if they were to meet certain sustainability KPIs. 

It really would help the marketing cohort to know what they’re shooting for. Today, there’s nothing even remotely close to a uniform definition. And, therefore, there are no KPIs that allow us to then compare apples to apples to say one is doing better than the other from a sustainability point of view.

What do you think the future holds for sustainability marketing?

It looks bleak in the short term, simply because there’s no incentive for the CMO to be sustainable in the way they run their operations, nor embedding sustainability principles into the campaigns they run for their organisation or their clients. But I’m a big believer in the young people that are coming through the ranks who are constantly challenging all of us to do more from a sustainability point of view. 

So I think we’re definitely going to turn the corner on what it means to be sustainable as a marketer. And what’s going to need to happen before that is for the CMOs to agree that there’s a need for a common framework of reference. 

Platforms like DMWF, the CMO Council here in Southeast Asia, the B2B Marketers Forum in Australia and other think tanks and platforms like these can become accelerators to make this a front and centre issue for CMOs. And they also provide an opportunity to collaborate with CMOs to work together in the short and medium term, so that we can get to that future where the CMO becomes a catalyst for sustainable marketing.

  • VC John is the regional director of sustainability innovation at Accenture, a professional services company specialising in IT services and consulting.

On December 7, 2023, VC John will host a webinar titled ‘Marketing Leaders View – Trends and Predictions for 2024’. For the full agenda and to register for free, visit:

VC John will also chair DMWF Asia 2024 in Singapore on February 28-29. For all the details, visit:

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