Striking while the climate’s hot: Tackling sustainability in marketing

These days everyone is talking about the ‘S’ word. No, not strategy – sustainability. Climate change is at the forefront of consumers’ minds and businesses are realising the power and opportunities this presents. Ayla Miller discovers how marketers can harness this enthusiasm to make the planet a better place while also turning a profit.

Although in theory sustainability seems like a simple enough concept, go a little deeper and it becomes increasingly complex. The word itself means different things to different people in different contexts. Many organisations are left wondering how they can do the right thing while still operating and growing a profitable business.

For The Warehouse Group this looks like focusing on authentic campaigns that make sustainable living easy and affordable.

Jonathan Waecker, Chief Customer Officer for The Warehouse Group, says the company’s branding and communications are designed to take customers on a sustainable journey along with them. 

“Everything we do has auditable measures and proof points to support our messaging – for example, we’ve been carbon neutral since 2019 and were the third major global retailer and first large company in New Zealand to achieve this status.”

One thing Jonathan says the company has learnt is that a lot of the work being done in the sustainability space are not immediately obvious such as removing plastic packaging.

“We’ve also learned that demand for circularity solutions like our e-waste recycling in Noel Leeming are super important to customers. For example 57.9 tonnes of e-waste has been collected for recycling since the launch of the programme up to January 2021 – so this is what our customers want to know we provide.”

In recognition of this appetite for change, Wellington-based agency EightyOne established a new offering called EightyOneBC specifically to help clients understand and optimise marketing campaigns around behaviour change.

Jonathan Waecker.

The pandemic has forced a great deal of behaviour change already and the breaking and making of new patterns which takes a physiological toll EightyOneBC co-founder and Director Matt Benson says.

Regardless of what the motivation for change has been, many patterns have been observed – and not all of them enthusiastic.

“A lack of trust in the evidence, combative narratives and the entrenching and isolating impacts this has, are all challenges for people working to generate positive social change,” he says.

Across the various research projects he is involved with there is “growth in fatigue and fatalism, where those being asked to change without the opportunity to do so, withdraw or become immune to change efforts”.

“This gets even worse when the people hoping for system change lose trust as goals are announced, but actions are thin on the ground, or programmes don’t take into account equity issues or are simply poorly communicated making them hard to understand or make sense of.”

This combined with the rising cost of living, he says, reduces people’s bandwidth for change.

Despite this, ESG and CSR has become a major talking point for many brands potentially, Matt says, because they are recognising that “true social change needs to involve all parts of the system: from the public sector, to companies, to consumers and citizens”.

However companies need to understand that consumers have “finely tuned their BS detectors”.

“They have become more aware and engaged in these domains and simply have higher expectations of accountability and action. This means that companies and public sector organisations need to be utterly authentic in their expectations of change for themselves – as well as for their ‘target markets’. If they are not, they will add to the fatigue or fatalism that we are seeing increase amongst people at large.”

This is where having more of a focus on behaviour insights can help businesses and public sector clients respond to these challenges he says.

However this increased scepticism could   also be putting brands off aligning themselves with sustainable values for the fear of being “called-out” if they do not live up to their audiences expectations.

“It’s nerve wracking to go to market with a campaign that mentions sustainability when you’re not perfect because someone can poke holes in you pretty quickly,” says Justin Mowday, Chief Executive Officer at The Monkeys.

“But I admire the companies that are, because I think the vast majority of consumers understand that people and companies aren’t perfect and give you credit for making the right step to improvement and making that commitment on that front.”

 In the case of The Warehouse Group, the organisation’s approach has been to be very honest about where it’s at and very clear about where it’s going.

“We’re not perfect yet, and might never be, but starting the journey is the most important part – and being really transparent about exactly what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it, and how we’re helping our customers to live more sustainability is a top priority for our communications,” says Jonathan.

As for reaching an audience and inspiring behaviour change, Justin says the message needs to be fun first and foremost – advice the team put into practise when working on Meridian Energy’s ‘Nature’ campaign.

“You’ve got to make it light-hearted and entertaining and engage people on that level,” he says.

“It’s important that we give people a sense that every little thing is helping. That every little action we take is important and it contributes to us all looking after the planet. There is a wave of people coming through younger than me who are super passionate about this. It’s literally shifting spending power.”

This presents an opportunity for companies to get ahead and make sustainability inherent in their practises he says.

“Then you wouldn’t need to lecture people, you’d just give them the confidence that they are doing the right thing.”

Aimee McCammon, Augusto’s NZ CEO agrees that brands that successfully harness sustainability in campaigns do so not by telling their audience what to do, but by inviting them to join them in some form of action. 

Aimee McCammon.

And this is exactly what Augusto did with Adidas’s ‘Run for the Oceans’ call to action. 

“They are not telling consumers you need to pick up your littler or you need to clean up the ocean,” says Aimee. “They are actively helping as a brand and asking consumers to join them in their action. That’s much more powerful than pretty advertising.”

In order to see real change Aimee says the key is to ensure the whole company is on board with making changes. 

“I definitely see a lot the ownership of these sorts of issues coming from the younger generation. You see a lot of pressure bottom up which is great because those young people are often at the front line of change. They are the brand managers and account managers and they are really agitating for change.

“Really you need to get everybody on that journey in the organisation. It starts with your internal audience before you can even get to your consumer audience.

“I urge all companies, business and brands to really think about the purpose that they exist for and how they can make a positive contribution to the world outside of just making money.”

But how can brands stand out from the crowd when everyone is making grand claims about sustainability?

Justin doesn’t have the answer but says that this has positives and negatives from his perspective.

“The good side of that is that it means that every brand feels like they need to be doing something in that space and it normalises it. The bad side of it is does it become a powerful marketing lever or not? Is that what consumers are going to choose your brand on if everyone is doing it? It may actually diminish as a powerful marketing lever.”

And it might be time to accept that companies simply don’t have a choice.

“Our planet is heating up so as human beings and as the human race, we need to fix this. As a company you have a key responsibility in that, and most corporates are doing something to improve in their sector. In the future it should become standard and uneventful that you’re doing that. There will always be other things you can build brands on but for the foreseeable future probably in our lifetime [sustainable practices] is going to be a powerful factor,” Justin says.

Almost every partner that disruptive marketing agency TBWA\NZ is working with has a sustainability strategy and workstream in progress currently – a testament to the significance of this movement.

Catherine Harris, CEO TBWA\NZ, agrees with Justin saying that businesses and brands need not be afraid of aligning themselves with sustainability values despite not being perfect.

“Both your consumers and your own people will increasingly expect everyone to start being clear how they will become more sustainable, so just start,” she says.

“Teams also need to recognise that sustainability strategies are far broader than just environmental strategies, which is one (very critical) goal within a broader sustainability landscape businesses can impact.

“It’s also important to ensure your plans have buy in from your board and leadership team so that what you commit to is authentic and prioritised.

“And finally make sure you work with partners to communicate this with care and   thought in a way that reflects your brand.”

As for how brands can encourage behaviour change through marketing campaigns, Catherine says transparency, action and clear communication are essential at all levels.

Catherine Harris.

“If you’re then looking at communications, make it motivating and inspiring and make it accessible. Use channels wisely and think about what needs to be communicated to who, and where so its authentic and not opportunistic.”

For some agencies, sustainable marketing starts at home, or rather in the office.

Recently dentsu Aotearoa implemented a framework for measuring its own carbon impact with the help of its CXM business Davanti.

Globally the dentsu group has ambitions of reaching a Net Zero target as part of its 2030 Social Impact strategy. Here in New Zealand the team saw an opportunity to spearhead that ambition and start to lay the groundwork for an accelerated Net Zero journey.

“We are very conscious of our role as kaitiaki in Aotearoa and playing our part in dentsu’s global journey towards Net Zero. We saw a great opportunity to use our scale and agility in New Zealand to establish a sustainability practice, trialling solutions and processes that can be scaled to the wider group as a force for good,” says Rob Harvey, CEO dentsu Aotearoa.

As part of this dentsu has established a multi-disciplinary Sustainability Council and Davanti has implemented Net Zero Now – a new product utilising Salesforce’s Net Zero Cloud.

This meant dentsu was able to test the product before also launching the product as a commercial solution for customers.

Net Zero Now captures all of dentsu Aotearoa’s energy consumption data from its day-to-day operations to determine the carbon footprint for the business. This enabled the business to clearly see areas of high energy consumption in the Auckland office which led to new initiatives to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions during those peak moments.

Anita Hedges, Implementation Lead and Head of dentsu’s Sustainability Council, says it was important that they captured as much data as possible to get a bigger picture of the businesses environmental footprint.

Rob says the team is “really excited” by the opportunities the Net Zero Now tool highlights.

“It’s not every day you get to take a good look in the mirror and make meaningful change – we’re looking forward to continuing to take steps in the right direction as we work towards our net zero targets for 2025 and partnering with clients on their own sustainability journeys.”

So, what can businesses learn about incorporating sustainability messages into marketing campaigns? 

Justin says it’s up to businesses to close the ‘say/do gap’. As the term suggests this is the difference between what consumers say they want to do and what they actually do.

“Consumers say they will buy more environmental products and that sustainability will be a decision maker for them but only about half actually do that. You’ve got to ask why is that happening because the intent is there.

“The reality is because they are weighing up real life. They’ve got to shop for a family on a budget. I think the onus now is on companies to close that ‘say/do gap’ by making sustainable choices not about sacrifice.

“A lot of companies have taken steps towards sustainability because of consumer pressure – that’s people power in action. But I think the opportunity for companies is to get ahead. Instead of just responding to that consumer pressure how can I embed sustainable practises naturally in my company because we want to, because it’s the right thing to do.”  

This article was first published in the 2022 June/July issue of NZ Marketing magazine.

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About Bernadette Basagre

Bernadette is a content writer across SCG Business titles, The Register and Idealog. To get in touch with her, email [email protected].

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