Marketing sustainability successfully… and sustainably

Lord Nelson stands (on one leg) atop Trafalgar Square and surveys (with one eye) a grey and drab cityscape of slate grey buildings, grey pigeons, traffic jams and solemn commuters. But on April 27, for one miraculous day, he could enjoy the view of a colourful wilderness including 6,000 plants, flowers and trees.  

It was not a mirage. It was a marketing installation by Innocent, the smoothie makers, who were promoting their Big Rewild campaign, a commitment to protect and preserve two million hectares of land in the UK. A team of crack gardeners worked through the night to turn a 600m² city slice of the square into a green paradise – complete with a replica lion statue covered in living foliage.

The smoothie brand wants to raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity in urban spaces and highlight its goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2025, which includes rewilding two million hectares of land and planting 300 orchards. The brand tweeted: “WE’VE TURNED TRAFALGAR SQUARE GREEN.”

The installation was so plausible and well-intentioned. But marketing sustainability – and marketing it sustainably – is much easier to do in theory than in practice. On Twitter, one doubter called Mel asked: “What a huge carbon cost for one day’s greenwashing! Trucking it all in and out again. Why don’t you sort your monumental use of plastic?”

Innocent responded: “Hi Mel, rewilding in the long run is great for locking in carbon. We wish it could be there longer but the idea was to inspire people and it did lots of that. As for plastic, we’re using recycled and plant plastic, and always pushing for deposit return schemes in the UK. Thanks.”.

There were plenty more critical tweets and defensive Innocent responses. Marketing sustainability is challenging, especially as Gen Z consumers are even more suspicious than Millennials. They want you to shine a bright light on everything you do, from how your workers (right along the supply chain) are treated day-to-day to how healthy and environmentally-friendly your products really are.

It’s challenging and it’s important. IBM carried out a study, Meet 2020 The Consumer Driving Change, and found that 57%t of consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to be more environmentally conscious. Almost eight out of 10 respondents said that sustainability is important to them. And the figures are rising.

It’s clearly a complicated area, but here are four key issues to consider when refining your sustainability marketing strategy.

1. Brands are not the heroes

You – and your fantastic sustainability credentials – are not the star turns of the story. Your job is to help consumers to become the sustainability stars of their own lives by using your products. Don’t toot your own horn; help the consumer toot theirs. It’s a subtle but important difference. You can benefit from their success. It’s a classic win-win. So, when creating your campaigns, communicate to the consumer how they can play a pivotal role in helping to improve the world… by opting for your product. 

2. Deeds speak (much) louder than words

Sustainability marketing doesn’t work if it’s not authentic. So, incorporate sustainability in all aspects of your brand operation. Social media will be humming with disgust if your business is found to be preaching more than it practises – and a hard-won reputation can be lost in seconds. Do you rely on unsustainable resources? Do you have partners that are less than squeaky clean? Do you trust all the links of your supply chain? The key is to be as holistic as possible. We’re big fans of Patagonia’s all-encompassing approach. If change is needed… then start to change, both new products and ways of doing things. It may take time, but that’s okay. It’s a process. Consumers are realistic. Take the consumer on the journey with you.

3. Sell the benefit… not just the obligation

Think sustainable performance. A good example is Nike Flyknit and Adidas Primeknit. The manufacture of trainers is notoriously wasteful. A huge number of plastic parts are stitched, glued and spliced together. But the technology behind Flyknit and Primeknit, which relies on weaving together a few long and super-strong fibres, reduces waste by about 60%… and, vitally, the shoes are also lighter, better fitting and faster. And, oh yes!, they are better for the environment. So, sell the benefit, which also just happens to be more sustainable. 

4. And “sorry” is not the hardest word

If – and more probably when – a weakness/lapse/irregularity is discovered in your claims to sustainability, then own it. Apologise. Quickly. Publicly. With conviction. Winning an argument with well-intentioned environmentalists and NGOs is hard enough when you are in the right. If you are in the wrong, on the other hand, suck it up. As you should. Pretty much everyone makes mistakes; the key is to respond in the right way. Saying sorry, believe it or not, is a sign of confidence, especially if it’s done with style and a convincing explanation of how you intend to rectify matters. It’s a process – see point 2. And consumers are realistic. If they believe you.

Back to Lord Nelson on his perch in Trafalgar Square. Today, his view is back to normal. All the greenery and short-lived symbols of rewilding – the hedges and flowers, the trees and shrubs – have been removed. The pigeons are flapping around and the odd red double-decker bus is stuck in traffic. Back to urban life. There is no sign of the green installation. Was the Innocent campaign a valid and successful sustainability marketing campaign? Or a wasteful greenwashing stunt? Or both? 

If you would like to talk to us about your brand purpose, we would love to hear from you.

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