Open Mic Advertising Technology

Digital advertising has a duty to help consumers make decisions on sustainability

By Poppy Mason-Watts, Chief growth and impact officer

WaterBear Network


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February 23, 2023 | 7 min read

Poppy Mason-Watts (vice president of marketing and communications at WaterBear Network) looks at how brands must go beyond showcasing their own values, and give their audiences the means to act on their own.

Headshot of Poppy Mason Watts of WaterBear

In the ultra-competitive world of digital marketing, brands’ answer to ensuring that the biggest budget doesn’t always win has long been depth of engagement. We all crave content that is ‘sticky’ to our audience, and so a company’s digital footprint must really bring their story to life in a memorable way to keep them in the game. But what made content appealing yesterday is no guarantee of success today.

It’s now a non-negotiable expectation among consumers that brands do good; indeed nearly a third of consumers would abandon certain brands due to concerns over their ethical or sustainability behaviors. Brands, for their part, know consumers want the products and services they purchase to be aligned with their values. Digital advertising largely takes this into account: most companies are eager to showcase sustainability credentials, with purpose-led content often showing up in digital channels.

What many brands don’t explore through their digital persona, however, is providing the means for consumers to act on those values. Increasingly, consumers expect the brands they interact with to not only demonstrate their own behaviors, but to help their customers to act too.

Actions speak louder than words

With 15% of consumers now believing they don’t have enough information to make informed decisions on living a more sustainable life, it’s clear that consumers want brands to act as a conduit and a resource for action. For example, it’s not enough to take out a banner ad which espouses how you ensure your supply chain is ‘green’. If I’m seeing that ad from my desk, sofa or train seat, what action are you pointing me towards right now so I too can act in an eco-friendlier way?

To be successful, digital advertising strategies must now make a fundamental shift to give consumers the choice of passive or active interaction. Sharing content, donating, providing an opportunity for activism: Turning advertising into a participatory act is the next stage of brands’ duty to corporate citizenship, and in turn will deepen their own authority and trustworthiness.

Fortunately, emerging ecosystems of digital channels and content are creating rich environments where brands can fulfil a practical role and empower consumers to act on their values.

Inform, educate… and inspire?

At WaterBear, the partnerships we have with brands use inspiring original content as an entry point to a multichannel hub of resources containing the information and means for viewers to live their shared values, interact with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and actively contribute to tackling critical environmental issues.

We are just one model. The bigger idea here is that there are now multiple means to the same end for brands when it comes to engaging with consumers while delivering impact. Just think of the diversity of channel options and people’s increasingly atomized content consumption habits. This new wave of immersive, ‘resource-based’ advertising will apply across the board.

The model is also a proven one. Brands such as Gymshark and Headspace rocketed to success because they used their digital presences to serve consumers with information and means to act through multi-channel, multi-format ecosystems.

Gymshark’s use of Pinterest to share lockdown workout routines with audiences could just as easily be NGOs providing engaged consumers with the information and means to campaign for a cause. Headspace’s wellness content that inspired many to take greater care of their mental health could take the form of inspiring brand video content raising awareness of an endangered species.

Those that play together, stay together

What seems a major shift now will soon be the minimum expectation from your audience. Advertising cannot just show that a brand is aware of an issue, whether that be water usage and carbon emissions, modern slavery and exploitation, or gender discrimination. It must provide consumers with the means to act on tackling these issues.

This evolution is to traditional digital media buying what digital advertising was to the classified page in your local newspaper. Brands have realized that the way they advertise must prove their purpose and sustainability credentials to win trust. Now, to differentiate from the competition, they must engage with consumers on a much deeper level.

This piece was originally published as part of The Drum’s deep dive into digital advertising.

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