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Sky, Mastercard and Pepsi on why marketing has role to play in solving the climate crisis

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By Chris Sutcliffe | Senior reporter

November 4, 2021 | 8 min read

As Cop26 rolls on, with nations making a mixed bag of pledges to help solve the climate crisis, brands including Sky and Pepsi have spoken out on the vital role marketing departments will have.

Paolo Feser

What lies beneath brands’ confidence around their climate change endeavors?

The Ad Net Zero pledge sees a number of brands promising to reduce the impact of their marketing endeavors to net zero. It’s a tall order – even the brands that have traditionally made a show of their environmental efforts such as Unilever are huge businesses that take a long time to turn around.

Pepsico’s global vice-president for advertising Ana Maria Hanao stated that ensuring collaboration between all parts of a business – from marketing to distribution – is a key impediment to efforts toward more sustainable practices. “Internally we’re working strongly on how to tackle these issues and work with external partners, to have access to innovation and tools we need to bring it to life,” she said.

A series of panels at the Advertising Association’s Ad Net Zero conference this week sought to examine why brands are so confident about the role they are choosing to play in ending the climate crisis. It is, as Unilever UK and Ireland’s vice-president and general manager Seb Munden said, both a moral and a commercial imperative.

Lead from the top

One of the key points was that the buck stops with the company leaders when it comes to sustainability. Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing and communications officer for Mastercard, argued that it is in fact the chief executive of a given company who is ultimately responsible for the decisions. At the same time, he also argued that a brand’s marketing is effectively the voice of the chief executive when it comes to communicating a company’s priorities: “They own it and drive it but marketing brings it to life. Marketing is the most significant seat to bringing it to life.”

In addition to the five key pledges set out in the Ad Net Zero pledge, it was also noted that many brands have their own publicly-facing sustainability drives under way. Henao spoke about Pepsico Positive, which features three core strategic goals designed to change the brand to be more sustainable. Crucially, while one of those strands is around marketing messages, the other two address supply chain and ingredient sourcing.

Public-facing pledges are, said Rajamannar, the only way to ensure that a business upholds its responsibilities: “If you’re going to do that you need to have realistic expectations of what the economics look like. If they’re not blended into the core business model it becomes an ad hoc activity ... and when there’s stress on the business it will go out of the window.”

That situation risks potential brand damage, as greenwashing becomes something consumers are increasingly savvy to. By nailing their green colors to the mast, brands effectively force themselves into a position where they have to change for commercial as well as ethical reasons.

That, in turn, means the brands are then forced to encourage their own partners to introduce sustainable practices, creating a virtuous circle. Henao said: “So we recognize that we as a company cannot generate the change. We are one actor of many that need to work together in a collaborative way to make sure that we bring this to life. So if you take the example of packaging, our ultimate aim is to create a circular economy where plastic waste is a thing of the past. But we cannot do that by ourselves, we have to engage with our suppliers.”

Rajamannar also noted that it is on brands to constantly vet themselves and their own sustainability efforts: “We also get some external experts to come and actually give lectures to my team to say, ‘hey, this is how sustainability has to be managed. This is probably the route to success, here are the best-in-class examples that other companies are doing that you may want to derive inspiration from.’

“Sometimes it’s good to see the success. But you also know, there are other things that you might want to try, but then somebody has tried, and they have found it doesn’t work. So it’s continuous focusing, refocusing people’s attention.”

Beyond the brand

Hamish Nicklin, media chief executive at Dentsu UK, noted that brand marketing can and does change consumer behavior. As a result, he said, it is often on the brands to help steer consumer awareness toward the issues to begin with. “The role that we play and skills we have that have stimulated that demand for buying stuff is a critical part of the solution. We can help people make better, more sustainable choices. We can make plant-based food, electric vehicles, green pensions irresistible to consumers – that’s what we do with our creativity.”

Sky Media’s group chief marketing, corporate affairs and people officer Debbie Klein said that part of brands’ remit around issues such as climate change is to provide a roadmap for ways to change: “People are concerned about what to do and how to do it. They are overwhelmed by choice and what actions to take. They don’t want to be lectured to, or [scaremongered].”

She pointed to the sustainable efforts Sky is making around its new Glass product, which is billed as the most eco-friendly television to date – though it has been pointed out that its standalone nature means consumers will need to chuck out their current sets, potentially causing more pollution.

Ultimately the panels noted that brands are bullish around sustainability because it is no longer a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have. More environmentally-conscious consumers and the potential damage to supply chains done by climate change mean that brands are as forced to act around the issue as any of the consumers they sell to.

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