A Forge ARticle 

Sustainability marketing is dead. Long live marketing in a sustainability world.

The science is clear on the human contribution to climate change, and most people, save for a sceptical minority, now feel that it has become critically important to protect the planet. Almost every brand has sustainability initiatives, and many have launched a slew of sustainable products and services as part of their response to the crisis.

However, the (endangered) elephant in the room is that brands are struggling with making sustainability pay.  There is a tension between the overt and public commitments that the business has made to environmentally responsible behaviour and the commercial realities of producing and selling sustainable products. Businesses, like people, need to balance investing with what they get from doing so; no business can continue to invest in sustainability forever without realising a financial return. Brands are caught between the rock of the impending climate disaster and the hard place of the need to make a profit.

As a result, we are increasingly seeing clients coming to us for help with marketing their sustainability initiatives. A question in many briefs we’ve seen over the last few years is, “how do we get people to buy our green solution?” There is a sense that marketeers are determinedly selling sustainability above all else – and few people are buying.

Why brands get sustainability marketing wrong

We think that sustainability marketing is based on a fundamentally false premise: because we are selling sustainability, people should be buying sustainability. But this is not why people buy. They buy for reasons of WIIFM – what’s in it for me? – be that taste, value, utility or something else. But rarely is it sustainability alone.  

Research shows that around two thirds of people in the UK (69%) don’t think climate change is a priority, despite believing that it is happening. Study after study shows that only around 20 – 25% of consumers say they are prepared to pay more for sustainability. These are the minority of people for whom a product’s green credentials give them a WIIFM – perhaps that it makes them feel good or that it makes them look good to others.

Figure 1: Source https://mediabounty.com/beyond-the-climate-bubble/

However, even though people say that they prefer to buy from sustainable brands, many don’t prioritise actually doing so. This lack of engagement combined with the say-do gap means that it is hard for brands to sell products and services that have sustainability as the primary benefit; some smaller brands or startups do so successfully, but for most the issue is scaling beyond this minority of consumers.

How to be sustainable AND profitable

We believe that the time for ‘sustainability marketing’ has gone. In the same way that the term ‘digital marketing’ no longer makes sense because all marketing is conducted in a digital world, we would argue that all marketing now takes place in a sustainability world. Rather than focus on green credentials and expect people to buy products for that reason, brands need to make a link between the sustainable elements of the product and the benefits that people do care about. 

For example, if you have put more environmentally sound ingredients into your cleaning product, then you need to tell people why those ingredients provide better cleaning or take better care of your fabrics. If you have reformulated your shampoo to include a more sustainable fragrance, tell people how great it smells. And if you have created a meat-free version of a classic ready meal, tell people how good the new version tastes or how the move away from meat provides new benefits, such as being a lighter meal before bed and supporting better sleep.

The recent webinar from System 1 and ITV on how advertising can step up to the climate challenge highlighted some great examples of brands that are doing so well.

This  campaign by Walkers shows sustainably grown potatoes but links the green credentials to a motivating and desirable WIIFM – the great taste and crunch that people love. Walkers are not selling sustainability; they are selling delicious crisps. But the sustainably-grown potatoes are the reason to believe that the crisps taste great. Similarly, the collaboration between eBay and Love Island was all about the clothes and the look. Yes, the concept was about the circular economy and combatting fast fashion. But the execution was all about the Islanders working with a celebrity stylist to look great.

Even a brand such as Tesla which is ostensibly all about the environment, became the world’s biggest selling car in 2023 mainly on category drivers such as advanced technology, safety, speed, looks and quality. And Patagonia, which is the poster child for sustainable marketing, sells mainly because the clothes are high quality, attractive and deliver the essential functional benefits of warmth and being rainproof.

In some categories, it’s easy to make the link between the green features of the product and the benefits to the customer. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that organic milk and regenerative farming are the ingredients behind Yeo Valley’s claim of deliciousness. But in other categories, making the link is harder. For example, in tech, the things that make devices or brands more sustainable, such as including recycled components or ethically sourced materials, don’t really show up as user benefits. The lack of WIIFM for customers is apparent in Apple’s ‘Mother Nature’ ad, which although loved by many, was also slated for being virtue signalling and ultimately distracting from some of the good work the brand has done in this area.

Brands without obvious, direct links between their green efforts and their products need to make indirect links or find green credentials that do major on user benefits. For example, increasing the durability of tech devices helps both the environment and the consumer, as does offering to trade in and recycle used devices. Nokia’s G22, which offers ‘quick fix repairability’, and Fairphone’s repairable headphones show that there is always a way; these offers have tapped into real human issues with electronics and offered an alternative to the frustrating cycle of purchase, damage, replace.

‘Green Consumerism’ alone won’t save the planet

These examples of ‘marketing in a sustainability world’ are positive, but we can’t delude ourselves. We all know that just buying green products will not combat climate change without other more drastic actions. For us all to have a future, we need to consume less – and that very idea will cause palpitations in every boardroom in every company across the globe.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Brands can be part of this new world in which we all reduce, reuse and recycle more. But it requires us to reframe what value means.  What will consumers value from brands in this world? Predicting emerging needs and solutions to drive Future Consumer Value will be critical for brands that want to prosper as well as protect our planet.  At The Forge, we believe that Future Consumer Value – anticipating what our consumers will value in the future and creating that for them – is the only dependable and sustainable way for a business or brand to grow.

To find out more about how we can help your business move towards marketing in a sustainability world by creating Future Consumer Value feel free to get in touch.

Photo by Josh Power on Unsplash

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