Eco marketing has a problem
Phil Rowley, head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK, urges a deeper, more profound understanding of human behaviours, values and beliefs when promoting sustainability
I have a concern that marketing is making a serious misstep.
Persuading people to positively change how and what they buy to support a sustainable future is a laudable goal, and one adland is increasingly setting out to do after decades encouraging rampant consumerism.
However, we have become so encapsulated in what can only be described as a ‘virtue bubble’ that we risk failing in our task to help shepherd responsible consumption.
My chief concern lies in how our industry has misjudged how green messages will land in the real world; the one outside London, in old industrial hubs and rural towns; in places where the hard-working people who proudly helped build the modern world, are now saddled with a portion of blame for its ecological woes.
And when our green messages do land with audiences we believe to be receptive, we face a different sort of challenge; people want a sustainable world, but they also want cheap goods and services. How do we work with this awkward disparity between consumer aspiration and action?
To address both of these issues, and much more besides, adland is going to have to be much more honest with itself.
Our industry failed to predict both Brexit and Trump, but laboured with an almost pretentious belief that neither would happen. Until they did.
We thought we were equipped with the skills to read the moods of entire nations, but the reality was we were out of touch.
Consider those mistakes worthwhile lessons to ensure we don’t get sustainability wrong too; they should act as warnings on the work still left to do to better understand the needs and motivations of fragmented audiences, and our own shortcomings communicating with them.
Never assume other people think like you
At present, we remain locked in our marketing bubble – urbanite, technocratic, elite – deciding on all the strategies to convince consumers that some things are bad, and some things are good. The risk is we are effectively, and perhaps subconsciously, criticising a vast cohort.
Our messages must communicate the need for change, community and personal responsibility – not issue blame or place guilt, or undermine parts of our own culture most of us have no experience of.
Just because we assume we’re on the right side of history, it does not mean everybody else will follow. And the one size-fits-all approach to marketing that says ‘go green’ is not going to work in an increasingly bifurcated and polarised world.
The fact is, we cannot afford to ostracise any section of society, and if that means changing the way we work, then let’s change the way we work.
This means our task is to think differently about messaging priorities and reflect a deeper, more profound understanding of human behaviours, values and beliefs.
We can start by segmenting our communications to account for differing views, levels of apathy, and susceptibility to green messaging.
This can’t just be about segmenting by age or geography; we need much more nuance.
Quorn is a good example of a brand getting this right.
The meat alternative has split its communications to cater for young, curious and politically engaged people with a soaring manifesto ad online, while choosing to target sceptics with humour and, crucially, adjacent benefits - taste and health - in its TV campaign.
Both ads work because they understand the different values, beliefs, biases and behaviours that characterise different cohorts.
Let’s set the standard high, and always seek to understand why the marketing worked, so lazy advertising can be filtered out from our collective future efforts.
Apathy, clichés and bad behaviour
Highlighting negatives feels like a logical and instinctive strategy when you’re asking someone to modify their behaviour, but if we bang the climate change drum too hard we risk catastrophising, which has the unfortunate effect of making people feel hopeless.
So instead of following our guts, let us be guided by behavioural science – which suggests we should reflect reality in a more positive light because spotlighting negative behaviour also serves to normalise, or even increase, such behaviour.
And while we acknowledge this principle, let us challenge our own normalisation within the marketing world of using lazy clichés. I don’t want to point fingers, but creatively speaking, we are already in deeply homogenous territory, and we must find a better way.
You do not need to look far to realise that the key visuals and symbology in green marketing are tired and overused.
The visual grammar of mountain top wind farms, solar panels in a desert, and other such clichés only preach to the converted. They are utterly forgettable to everyone else, and serve to boost apathy and blindness to green messages.
But worse, they can even be used to undermine the very thing they are trying to sell.
For example, wind and solar are incredible technologies, but they come with small print about the part they play in the wider sustainability roadmap.
If they are used as a lazy shorthand to sell a green product, when in reality they might only be a contributory factor, it only takes one person who knows what they are talking about to use social media to cut the legs off a campaign.
In doing so, they will have scored another point for the sceptics.
So this is not just about being more creative and diverse with our symbology; it demonstrates that marketers will need to understand more about the products and services they are helping to sell – and, indeed, more about the supply chains linked to such products.
I have helped sell cars in my career, but I could not tell you how a carburettor works. I’ve advertised a major supermarket, but I couldn’t explain the mechanics of its distribution centre.
But in eco marketing it is more important we do know – it’s too easy to be caught out when so many people want you to fail.
What marketing needs, therefore, is to communicate in a fresh and vibrant language that is also capable of backing its own claims.
Our messages need to be meticulously researched and made bulletproof against any form of cynicism, or we simply shouldn’t bother.
We must work harder to understand every cohort, and that means stepping outside of London and getting closer to the communities we have previously neglected.
As marketeers, we now have a very serious responsibility on our hands. But if we can be more honest about our own shortcomings, and seek to modify our own behaviours, we have a better chance of doing so in others.
Only then can we truly play our part in what is surely the greatest task of our generation.
Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK and the author of Hit the Switch: the Future of Sustainable Business. You can download the report, for free, here.