Marketing Sustainability Commitments, Sustainably 

August 14, 2022

Incorporating sustainability goals is a big part of any communication strategy now. But how do you talk about your commitments and impact in a way that drives benefit for your business, is honest and accountable to stakeholders and consumers, deepens relations and points towards a more sustainable future generally?  

Begin with a deep dive 

There is a growing demand among consumers for brands to stand for something and be transparent about what their products are made with, where they come from, what their supply chains looks like and how their services are provided.  

To do this successfully, brands needs to do a deep dive under the hood of their organisations and be able to define and articulate internally, a robust ESG or responsible business ambition, as well as commitments, targets, and evidence of the impact you’re making. 

Sometimes, unfortunately, the outward changes required for your brand to satisfy the public may be fundamentally incompatible with your current business model.

This often happens with larger companies – ones that are either already well known and controversial for their ethical issues, like oil companies, or ones big enough to create a knowledge gap in how much people know about how the business is actually run day to day.

Despite this, it’s still possible and advisable to publicise your sustainability goals, and clarity around your vision – alongside visible and large operational change – is what’s needed here.  

Getting your messaging right 

It’s all about being able to align your purposeful commitments and action with how you market your business and offering, using your# commitments and progress to back up any claims you make. There may be a tension between the need for marketers to drive sales, and the core business desire to drive forward an agenda of positive change – and reducing this tension is core to your messaging.  

  • Get your messaging wrong, and consumers will see straight through you – All brands want to avoid being accused of purpose or green washing. Take Innocent Drinks, who recently (Feb 22) fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority. Their TV ads were pulled over an environmental claim that people could “get fixing up the planet” if they buy their drinks. But the positive impact being implied in the light and quirky animated ads didn’t show that the brand’s single-use plastic products had a net negative impact over their full life cycles.  
  • Getting ESG coms wrong is very, very easy – Many business are scared to misstep, and would rather avoid publicly committing at all. Sarah Shilling, CMO of business comms company Unlimited, says “Sustainability is unforgiving. More so than price, delivery and quality. If you get your sustainability messages wrong or your promises are lies, then it’s a long road to try and claw that back” If the audience smells disingenuousness in your messaging, it’s hard to convince them otherwise.   

The importance of walking the talk  

  • To be able to market sustainably you need to genuinely and practically walk the talk first. Sustainability needs to be an integral part of all that you do – communicate how sustainability permeates through all sections of your company, from hiring, to supply chain 
  • Marketers need to look at the How – This is not simply about marketing in a “green” way (important as it still is to look at the carbon output or greenness of your operations). It’s about how your marketing and comms encourages positive change and changing behaviours, for the benefit of people and the planet. People need to buy into this How, too.  
  • Ultimately, it’s marketing – you do still need to sell the product or service – and this has to look attractive to customers – so align what you offer with how it will solve societal or environmental issues and concerns. 
  • But stay within AS or Green Claims Codes while you’re doing this – this is where campaigns considered to be “washing”, like the Innocent Campaign, went wrong. Because… 
  • Unclear or unaligned ESG coms can mean money down the drain – In 2020 the ASA made Shell pull a radio ad for their “Shell Go+” loyalty programme because the ad – ending with the tagline “Drive carbon neutral by filling up and using Shell Go+ today” – didn’t make it clear enough that Shell Go+ was a loyalty scheme where customers could trade fuel credits to fund cO2 offsetting initiatives, and not a somehow carbon-neutral fuel. This is just one example of a disconnect between those writing the copy and those who properly understood the scheme and ultimately the company’s targets.  

To succeed, marketing with a sense of vision has to resonate with issues people care about, be tied to your real life practice, and create profit alongside creating societal value  

Top Tips on Marketing Sustainably

To summarise, here are some things you’ll want to consider when communicating your sustainability goals: 

  1. Tell Your story  – about your brand, products and services within the context  of bigger issues and common causes  
  1. Understand that this is long term – Sustainable marketing goals are not just about one-off “moments” or campaigns – but fundamental changes to how you run things.  
  1. Don’t Say It If You Can’t Prove It– each claim you make about your brand’s sustainability, or the sustainability of the goods or services you offer, needs layers of evidence to back it up. Legal framing is important – know which regulatory or environmental standards you’re following and communicate them with the audience.   
  1. Don’t Miscommunicate – Ensure all information you have can be verified and not misconstrued   
  1. Understand People, Include People People need to believe that change is possible, your marketing should build relationships and trust. When consumers can see themselves in your campaigns, it’s easier for them to see how they fit into a more positive future, and that that change is possible. For example, Sainsbury’s’ replacement of their longstanding “Eat Well for Less” with “Helping Everyone Eat Better”  better reflected the newer view of sustainability as a team effort. They followed this with a new range of TV ads, featuring people of all ages and backgrounds looking empowered in cooking their own healthy food.  
  1. Build a Community – Good comms and marketing is about connecting and deepening relationships, making people feel part of a bigger effort both inside and outside of the company. 
  1. Sometimes, Take A Big Jump – IN 2021, Mastercard pledged to tying all executives’ pay bonuses to how well they individually performed in line with ESG goals – a pledge they made publicly known through communicating it in their website and in mainstream press 

Who’s done it well? 

Let’s Go Zero 2030 – a campaign for carbon neutrality programmes in schools. An acclaimed photographer created a set of punchy black-and-white profiles of people across all sections of society, listing all their individual identities but all with the common “Climate Hero[es]”. It had the effect of making sustainability look punky, edgy, and most of all inclusive. 

Upfield – The vegan food manufacturer’s website has a very comprehensive purpose section. There are claims and accounted for targets at every level – from aims for 95% plastic-free packaging by 2030, to refusing to work with suppliers who contribute to deforestation.

They are honest about their current operations – with transparency and published numbers on their methane production, and the admittance that they are not where they want to be in that regard. 

So what does all this mean really?  

When communicating your sustainability commitments, the people hearing and seeing your messaging need to truly believe that you are committed to the pledges you’re making, and see their values being reflected in your actions and words. They really do work in tandem – a clear and agreeable goal does drive business, and build the personality of a brand. When how you voice these things is clear, inclusive, and objectively and legally sound, you’ll have a strategy that investors and audiences can believe in, and one that’ll benefit your company, society, and the planet.  

Debra Sobel
Co-founder and CEO

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