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Brand Purpose Carbon Emissions Greenwashing

3 ways advertisers can support sustainable behavior change with their work


By John Osborn, Director, US

April 1, 2024 | 9 min read

Though much of the heavy lifting of decarbonization in adland requires proactive supply chain management, advertisers also have the opportunity to promote sustainable transformation in the messages they put out in the world, writes Ad Net Zero director John Osborn.

Clean planet collage with Earth and hands with sponge

/ Adobe Stock

As advertisers do the difficult work to reduce their own emissions, many are turning to another, and possibly even larger, opportunity to have a positive impact on the planet - the messages they choose for their ads. Advertising has the power to positively influence consumer behavior, and every brand can and should consider how their creative work can deliver on that promise.

The need to consider advertising that promotes sustainability is profound. People are ready for it, and in fact, many are demanding it.

A recent study from Dentsu shows that in five years, three quarters of respondents will only want to spend money with companies that practice sustainable advertising. A study from the ARF notes that 78% of consumers want to buy from environmentally friendly companies, but don’t know how to identify them.

While an advertiser’s path to net zero requires consideration for their company’s environmental impact overall as well as the emissions caused by making and showing the ad itself, what’s in the message is also a critical component.

The good news is that there is a growing stable of resources for advertisers eager to infuse their work with sustainable concepts in a way that is successful for brands, consumers and the planet. For example, Google partnered with Drawdown Labs, a part of Project Drawdown, to create a sustainable marketing playbook. Drawdown Labs notes that “one of a marketer’s greatest superpowers is the ability to influence culture. Great storytelling has the power to move people to action in ways big and small.”

Throughout Google’s playbook and in the other resources below, three main concepts emerge again and again that are most successful at spurring action: education, inspiration, and finding the ’and.’

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Educate and inform

Consumers can’t make sustainable decisions in a vacuum, and there is a lot of misinformation and or lack of information, which has confused the consumer. Advertisers have the opportunity – and responsibility – to provide clarifying information through their products and how they are advertised to help people make choices that are better for the planet.

Whether regarding the design of the product or service and most responsible use, or providing more transparency on their sustainability steps as a company, these are examples of information that should be shared more regularly with consumers. Google’s playbook showcases Uber as an example, which now gives consumers the option of choosing an electric car for their ride, and created a program to encourage drivers to use Teslas, the subject of an informative ad.

Education is also a neutral approach, as it doesn’t come across as preachy, leaving the ultimate decision up to the consumer.

Research from Potential Energy shows that many people have misconceptions about which actions are most effective in reducing emissions. Providing research, data and information can correct these misperceptions.

Cascade Detergent has a campaign called ’Rethink the Sink’ which provides consumers with information about the total water used for washing dishes by hand compared to washing them using a dishwasher.

A study from Ipsos notes that a creative will be even more powerful if they ’show’ in addition to telling the audience something. Using the ad to illustrate what, exactly, a consumer can do, was proven to lead to higher performance.

Provide positive inspiration

Research from a number of sources, including this study from Kantar and Potential Energy’s Later is Too Late study, show that ads with positive messages perform better than doomsday ads.

The world is well aware of the climate crisis, what they want is inspiration. Brands can show consumers a positive path forward with the right creative message. This approach can flow naturally from an education approach. Once a consumer has gotten new insight, brands can empower them to take action.

Through our Ad Net Zero Awards, we see great work that follows this principle already in the market. For example, Hellmann’s won for its concept of creatively using the leftovers in the fridge to reduce waste. A consumer has ingrained behaviors, such as shopping for food at the grocery store. Rather than making them feel bad for buying too much food, (overconsumption is a contributor to climate change, especially in rich countries,) Hellmann’s focused on a creative solution, inspiring consumers to use what they’ve bought while still making their friends and family excited for dinner – a win-win.

Find the ‘and’ in great messaging and design

At the end of the day, sustainability must still meet core consumer needs. This idea is evidenced in Boston Consulting Group’s research across markets, which has informed the firm’s sustainability playbook for advertisers.

And for many consumers today, sustainability brings a concern of sacrificing performance, price or design. As such, successful design and messaging needs to show sustainability as an ’and’ rather than an ’or.’

Better yet, brands should show that there is no decrease in value to the consumer, and in fact offer a benefit when they design the product or service with sustainability at its core, which will become the new normal.

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Brands can focus on the performance, durability and value inherent in the greener choice. Communicate how a product using recycled material performs just as well as the original version. An obvious example of this is how consumers are hesitant to purchase an electric vehicle until they believe that the range and charging options are similar to gas-powered cars.

These win-win opportunities are what helps drive the little and big changes needed everywhere if we are to reduce emissions and reach net zero.

Be the change

Companies committed to sustainability are leaning into advertising that includes sustainable messaging. Research from Vivvix shows that Ford, a company that has set aggressive sustainability targets, committed 23% of their US advertising spend to EV messaging in the first half of 2023, much more than its top US competitor.

For this advertising to work, it needs to influence consumer behavior quickly and definitively, while guarding against greenwashing. While advertisers have a sense of urgency, consumers are ultimately in control of their own actions. Therefore, presenting consumers with the information that inspires them to act and providing an option that delivers a win-win will prove to be the one of the most effective ways forward.

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