Monday (22 April) marks Earth Day. It's an issue that is close to home for me, quite literally: I live on an eco-farm in the south-west of France. We are doing our bit to boost the bee population and we produce enough fruit and vegetables to feed our family.
I also work with a number of environmental foundations, including The Surfrider Foundation Europe, a not-for-profit which aims to protect the ocean and coastlines.
So what's this got to do with marketing? Well, I believe that some of the more disruptive forces at play within the digital economy are creating an opportunity for brands to accelerate green innovation. Let me explain.
The digital economy is an online utopia for brands. Virtual Reality has enabled immersive experiences and voice assistants are bringing closer interaction between brands and consumers. These technologies (combined with the impending arrival of 5G at scale) are turning consumers' homes into ever more sophisticated stores. And as delivery infrastructure continues to improve and outcome-based AI enables assistants to plan and purchase goods -- before people even know they need them -- the need to visit shops to purchase goods will diminish even further.
This disintermediation raises an important point, particularly for brands that lean heavily on packaging or point of sale promotion. As people's ‘opportunities to see’ reduce, how will their choices be made? Brands will need to find new ways to create loyalty and a level of preference that transcends the algorithm.
There’s a strong case that one of the most effective ways to do this will be to align their values and beliefs with their customers and to think much more innovatively in term of managing their impact on the environment and society. The evidence is all around us. People are far more aware of their impact on the environment; in a recent global survey, Unilever found that one-third of consumers are now choosing brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.
For advertisers, then, a good place to start would be the bête noire of environmentalists everywhere; packaging.
Packaging remains central to a product’s visual appeal and ultimately purchase decisions. But has marketing thinking been left behind by the consumer? Many businesses are lagging behind in finding effective alternatives to single-use plastic and design. Currently, 14% of plastic packaging globally makes its way to recycling plants, with 9% actually recycled. Meanwhile, around a third of all packaging is left in fragile ecosystems like the ocean and 40% ends up in landfill, according to Science Daily.
Some brands are recognising that packaging innovation needs to be about more than recycling, and we are proud that two of Vizeum’s clients are among them – it’s an opportunity to showcase brand innovation. Ikea now uses a packaging made from mushroom roots to insulate its products, instead of Styrofoam. AB InBev, meanwhile, has launched its 100+ Accelerator programme to crowdsource and invest in entrepreneurs that helps it reach is own sustainability targets. The scheme also helps those same entrepreneurs scale their ideas and products.
In fact, I would take the opportunity one step further.
As people inevitably visit stores less, packaging will become as much about sustainability as design. The cosmetics brand, The Ordinary, is already moving towards this model, delivering products in ‘no-frills’ packaging and passing the saving onto consumers. Brandless, a U.S subscription-based service is doing the same, selling everyday essentials for $3 delivered straight to your door.
These examples raise the question of whether innovation in re-usable packaging – from bags for life to re-usable coffee cups – will spread into people's homes? Consumers will want new and interesting ways to store goods in their homes - just think of the visibility and opportunity for brands that successfully tap into this.
Packaging is just one dimension of marketing’s impact on the environment and how brands can start making the changes they need today to remain relevant for tomorrow.
World Earth Day is a great opportunity for brands to take a moment to reflect on that impact. But, the truth is you don’t need to live on a farm to recognise that one day is not enough or to believe that brands which do the right thing (and do it quickest) will be the ones that reap the benefit. Both from their loyal customers and the positive change they will make in the world.
Thomas Le Thierry is global president at Vizeum