Marketing Earth Day Sustainability

Marketers: we are messaging sustainability totally wrong

By Corey Newman | Executive vice president of strategy and innovation

April 22, 2021 | 5 min read

What if I told you that the way marketers communicate about sustainability actually reduces our ability to make a meaningful impact, asks Deutsch’s Corey Newman. There is a better way, one in which brands bridge the gap between awareness and action to create real change.

Woman holding protest sign that reads: "Planet Over Profit"

The top-line message for how to reduce climate change is clear and has been for decades. The truth is that marketers haven’t pushed sustainability to the forefront of their brand and messaging strategies, and when they do, it tends to be self-congratulatory. There are a multitude of reasons for this:

  • We believe championing sustainability won’t increase revenues
  • Our products aren’t as sustainable as they should be
  • It’s unclear what sustainability goal will resonate most with our consumer base
  • We market and sell one-time products and services, not long-term behavior change, which requires a different cadence

We’ve built our careers on reaching consumers in a way that motivates them to learn more, consider and convert. However, our promises are often disconnected from rational environmental goals, our corporate missions, and even our product road maps.

The time for change is now. Sustainability drives revenue – research shows that sustainability and purpose now drive purchasing decisions as much as any other factor. In fact, a 2020 IBM survey found four out of 10 users make their primary purchasing decisions in a purpose-driven way – the same number that are driven by value/cost. That is staggering and only likely to continue to grow.

Once marketing sustainability becomes an imperative, working toward action doesn’t become any easier. The enormity of the challenge hardens consumers to even the most emotionally resonant brand messages. Even further, consumers are tired of being told it’s on them to fix climate change. They know the brands are often some of the biggest perpetrators, making sustainability marketing a minefield of expectations. Apart from staying silent, what are marketers to do?

Our experience has shown us that marketers can make a difference by following certain pragmatic principles:

Make sure internal strategy and the marketing department are aligned

Many corporations have made sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) part of corporate strategy. Some have also implemented robust environmental reporting, oftentimes in the form of Global Reporting Institute (GRI) standards.

Make sure your marketing goals also align to the overall sustainability goals of the company.

Ladder up to a message bigger than just your brand

Your products fill a recent need or a want – how they contribute to sustainability should ladder up to a broader concept or development goal.

Use clear and standard metrics popularized by sustainable development goals (SDGs), GRI and other impartial institutions to ensure transparency and ease of understanding.

Make a specific sustainability problem approachable

One of the biggest pain points in inspiring consumers to act is that they feel hopeless based on the scope of the problem – the way around this is to define individual actions with a known impact, and encourage those. It can feel more incremental than revolutionary, but we all have to walk before we can run.

Showcase small wins that were created together with consumers

Consumers are always being given dire predictions and a news cycle chronicling devastation – it is important to celebrate hard work and progress, whether it is the planting of a garden or the small strides your brand is making to create a better world. Offer the brand as a partner in taking action.

Marketers are uniquely poised to be consumer advocates. Understanding the voice of the customer and buying preferences means that we can report back to our organizations on what works and what doesn’t.

Opening up two-way lines of communication and acting on consumer requests creates trust – and starts to practically write the marketing copy itself.

Champion science and transparency

As much as we live for differentiating our brands, the real work in sustainability is done by staying true to your word, showcasing the scientific progress of your brand.

A lot of the innovation in sustainability is at the supply chain level – don’t be afraid to showcase these essential but often overlooked parts of your product’s story.

Build a movement for the long-haul

We must shift to encouraging longer, sustained behaviors that benefit the environment. Our messaging must encourage a movement – a lifestyle or way of life – not a temporary solution.

In parallel, we must be prepared to have longer, more sustained messaging around our environmental strides – this isn’t a one-time deal.

Equipped with these principles, we believe we can continue to drive meaningful change that benefits both our brands and the planet.

Corey Newman is executive vice president of strategy and innovation, Deutsch New York.

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