Let’s get one thing straight. Sustainability needs to be ingrained into business strategy. Marketers can’t start telling sustainability stories to consumers if their brands don’t have any stories to tell about sustainable products, actions or initiatives.
But when 88% of consumers think that companies are an essential part of the solution to climate change, the pressure is on for brands to get their story straight. So, what is the role of marketers in all of this? What can the marketing community do to have an influence and lead their brands and audiences in the right direction?
Last week, we went to the Financial Times Climate Capital Council’s event, Climate Change and Changing Consumer Behaviour: How Companies Should Respond, to get the bigger picture from some of the leading minds in sustainable business. Here are some of the most important thoughts on sustainability in business right now, set out specifically for marketing leaders.
Cracking the say/do code
Citing a recent survey by American Express, Emiliya Mychasuk (Climate Editor at the Financial Times), told us that 87% of people in the UK wish that companies would make it easier to reduce their carbon footprint. Real behaviour change is blocked by cost and convenience barriers. How does this become a marketer’s problem?
Sue Garrard, Chair of Blueprint for Better Business and sustainability strategy advisor reckoned that a lot of brands tend to “misread the big gap between what consumers say and what they do.” Now, there’s a challenge for marketers.
“For decades, consumers have said they care and that they’d buy different, more responsible products”, she added, but their actions aren’t adding up. “When you decode it, consumers are being very honest about wanting to be part of the solution in their role as consumers and as citizens more widely, but very few brands have cracked the code.”
So, where do we go from here? Marketers have always had the tools to influence cultural change and encourage people to see and do things differently. They do it by telling stories that consumers want to be a part of. But too many marketers still don’t really know who they’re talking to. With data-led personas that paint a clear picture of the consumer, who they are, and how they behave, marketers can play their part in closing the sustainability say/do gap with the right relevant messages.
The foundation of a good relationship
Another barrier to increasing consumer confidence in sustainable products and ideas is a BIG one for brands: trust.
Ignacio Gavilan, Director of the Sustainability Consumer Goods Forum, put it plainly: “being a familiar brand no longer guarantees trust. In fact, big can now mean bad.” When it comes to sustainability storytelling, consumers don’t know who to trust. To combat this, Lorraine Whitmarsh, Director of Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, called for higher industry standards for transparency when it comes to sustainability storytelling, so that consumers can more easily make sense of claims.
However, individual brands do have a role to play here, too. As Ignacio pointed out, two thirds of shoppers are now turning to the internet to find information about a product and the ethical, environmental and social background of the brand. “Consumer reviews, activist websites, and even random tweets are filling the information void left by companies,” he said. But with more transparency in their communications, he added that brands can build “a very vibrant connection with consumers. And transparency must always benefit consumers.”
But what does this mean in practice? Consumers aren’t interested in long CSR reports. It’s about presenting data and information in accessible and relevant ways along the customer decision journey. For example, citing a GlobeScan survey, Sue mentioned that around 68% of consumers want to see carbon labelling on products.
A great example of this emerged when one of our clients, adidas, collaborated with a competitor, Allbirds, to create a shoe clearly labelled with the cost of just 2.94kg CO2 per pair – a great way to differentiate their offering while helping consumers to make a positive and informed purchase.
Reduce, re-use, but don’t react
Sue had clear guidance for any leader still buying into the “false binary construct” that sustainable products and processes are an expensive investment: “the job of leadership in any company is to deliver today, but also to plan for the new economy. And my advice is always to look at that true cost, and then convert some of it into investment and get ahead of the game.” Or, as Lorraine put it, “it might be cheaper in the very short term to not do anything, but actually, it very quickly becomes much more expensive.”
For marketing teams to get ahead of the game, leaders need to invest in long-term sustainability marketing capabilities. And as Ignacio explained, sustainability strategies require a whole “new skillset and a new understanding of the business.”
To get there, Sue put forward that “a lot of enlightened companies are building the muscle internally.” Leaders need to understand how their teams can make the best decisions based on sustainability, and build those capabilities to keep innovating through ever-changing times. “You try and fail quite a lot when you make any major change in a company,” Sue added. Change should be an investment, not a cost. So, brands have to start experimenting, learning, and unlocking any resistance to change now, before more government policies, incentives and penalties (hopefully) come in.
It’s everybody’s plan
Marketers need to have the knowledge and confidence to talk about sustainability. Without the opportunities to learn about or be actively involved in the brand’s sustainability strategy, marketers are being set up to greenwash and spread misinformation. When sustainability strategy and metrics for success are woven directly into the business model, everybody in the community “can see their point of connection just as they can to any other business plan,” as Sue pointed out.
Speaking of the business community, if there was ever a good time to diversify your teams and create spaces for collaboration across them, it’s while planning and executing your sustainability strategy.
Reflecting on the Youth Council initiative that was introduced towards the end of her time at Unilever, Sue stressed the importance of listening to a wider range of voices, across levels of seniority, when innovating and updating a sustainability strategy. “A lot of solutions sit in the business, no matter how big or small you are,” she said. “If you genuinely empower people to be part of the solution, then you get magic.”
DEI is crucial for sustainability capability, not only because we need diverse voices as we innovate for a more sustainable future, but because marginalised identities are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change.
Seize the opportunity
Securing a sustainable future is everyone’s problem. It’s up to investors to demand more future-proof business models before investing any capital; it’s up to governments to give more consistent signals that encourage the right kinds of competitivity across industries; it’s up to consumers to drive demand, and it’s up to marketers to translate the consumer’s voice into strategy and convert that demand into real action.
Silence is no longer a safe option for brands. In fact, as Ignacio offered, silence actually raises suspicion, damages trust, and “is clearly a sign that you have something to hide.” Sustainability might be everyone’s problem, but it’s also your opportunity to make a real difference while driving brand growth and energising your teams with an authentic sense of purpose.
Let’s get your sustainability story straight for your consumers. Get in touch to start building your brand’s sustainability marketing capability.