After being plagued for years, marketing sustainability finally is being seen as the solution to get consumers to change behavior if the narrative is compelling enough.
By Per Grankvist
The first lady’s official stylist, make-up-artist and hair sculptor were all done.
As Michelle Obama sat down in front of Platon, the photographer commissioned to take the first official portrait of her, she looked nothing short of stunning. And that’s a problem for a photographer who is there with the objective to try to capture her personality, rather than her image. As Obama leaned forward, framed her face with her well manicured hands and started looking into the lens, anticipating the first click of the shutter, Platon forgot who she was. “Right, my love! I want your soul! Give it to me!” he heard himself say, in his trademark British working-class jargon.
Needless to say, it is not how you talk to a lady, let alone the first lady. Although she kept her composure, the feeling of surprise over the remark translated into a slightly raised eyebrow in the resulting portrait of Michelle Obama. With it, a glimpse of her soul.
As Platon shared the story behind this portrait at the recent BSR Conference, a global gathering of executives and sustainability thought leaders in New York City, he stressed why portrait photographers had to strive to encapsulate the values of the portrayed, the human spirit, for the image to not be one more image.
The same logic, however, goes for every brand.
To be interesting today, brands have to ensure their marketing efforts aren’t just projecting images but transmitting values. After all, if connections with human consumers are what you want, you need to communicate humanely. Sharing your soul, your values and how they guide you, even when things don’t go so well, is a part of connecting with others.
Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case. As any journalist would know, the majority of the press packages we get and corporate information we’re fed are dry facts and bullet points, filtered through layers of PR- and communication experts to a point where the sanitized and polished remains convey the superhuman abilities of the company in question to achieve whatever it wanted to achieve.
Not surprisingly, the result is a form of “inhuman communications,” as Bloombergs’s Sustainability Editor Eric Roston put it.
But communicating your desire to become more sustainable isn’t easy. The arguments used to inspire the public to change in the past decade have created very little change, regardless of who the changemaker was, i.e., the government, NGOs or corporations.
- The scientific argument: “Researchers around the world agree that the level of green house gases in the atmosphere are far too high and may cause irreversible consequences to the eco system of our planet”
- The argument of animal curtness: “This cuddly little panda - yes isn’t he a cutie? Oh, look at those little sparkling eyes! - will DIE if you don’t change”
- The argument of economical reason: “Moving to a more sustainable way of operating, we can lower our expenses, become less dependent on foreign fossil fuel and thus decrease our risk for raw material price volatility in our supply chain”
- The religious argument: “Change your behavior as a way of being a good - insert religious affiliation here - and honoring thy maker and the world he/she/it created”
- The argument of moral superiority: “Change your behavior to demonstrate that you better than those shallow impulse-driven people of Jersey Shore”
- The parental argument: “Change yourself and save the world for the sake of your kids future”
- The patriotic argument" “The way we Americans live threatens the American way of life”
- The argument of violence: “If you don’t change, I’ll damage your SUV”
Then we have the argument that is a combination of the ones above.
Marks & Spencer: Nothing Sexy About Changing Behavior
Given this range of arguments, however, why aren’t more people changing our behavior the way we know is needed? According to Marks & Spencer CEO Mark Bolland the problem is that the communication doesn’t resonate with the modern consumer. So far, by and large, communication wanting us to change behavior isn’t aspirational, isn’t sexy and doesn’t create desire.
As head of one of the world’s most sustainable retailers, Bolland knows what he is talking about. Delivering the keynote at the BSR Conference, he was standing only two blocks away from Madison Avenue, the birth place of advertising as we know it today.
In the early days of advertising, it was all about promoting the unique product features (“It lasts longer!”) but as they were quickly copied by competition, ad agencies along Madison Avenue started creating ads designed to promote the values associated with a product, starting with what the consumer could expect to feel when she used the product (“it feels great!”) and eventually promoting who the products could help her be (“Be attractive”).
Now, we are trained to react to the desire created by advertising. If we’re to defuse the weapons of mass consumption that is us, we have to make sure that we use the same emotional trigger; desire. If desire can be used to change behavior and try a new cheese brand, get us to run more often or to buy the new iPad Mini, why not to save the planet?
A Vision of Hope
One of the most powerful triggers is a vision of hope.
Revlon’s founder Charles Revon once famously said that in factories they made cosmetics but in stores they sold hope, a belief that helped make Revlon one of the most successful cosmetics companies in the world. The desire created by hope is so strong that it actually got a rookie senator with a foreign name and a non-typical background to the White House in the U.S. presidential election in 2008.
And now reelected.
Which leads me to the how. There’s nothing as powerful to inspire hope than to tell a story.
A compelling narrative about your background and values could be applied to the challenges of today to create hope for the future. It’s what Barack Obama’s been doing all his life. And it’s what more and more brands do to help us choose them over a competitor.
It’s no surprise then that the sustainability narrative is one of the biggest questions among sustainability professionals today. Over fair trade coffee at the BSR conference in one of the break out sessions on how to manage risk in the supply chain, H&M and Sprint drew contrasts on how well the narrative was created and how they integrateed sustainability in their respective companies.
Sustainability: Sprint & H&M Talk Process vs. Action
For narrative, Sprint came out on top with a representative describing a number of ambitious goals, various collaborative efforts and priorities taken by the company to reduce risk in the supply chain.
But when the H&M exec shared the retailer’s achievements, the dangers of focusing too much on creating a compelling narrative became evident. If a beautiful package isn’t filled with enough stuff, it will inevitable be a bit hollow. As the Sprint executive talked about processes, the H&M executive talked about actions.
When asked how they handle risk in their supply chain, H&M started by sharing how she works to make sure they are taking an as broad a perspective as possible, followed by specific actions and the outcomes. The Sprint executive, however, spent the majority of her answers vaguely describing the process and compensating a lack of on-the-ground action with up-in-the-air speak garnished with adjectives.
But before you fire of an email to your communications people instructing them to improve your sustainability narrative, let me stress the importance of actually doing stuff.
Igniting Change: Will.i.am Introduces Ekocyckle
Gandhi suggested that we should ignite change by changing to our own behavior and that it would be enough for the world to change their attitude towards us.
Will.i.am realized his band Black Eyed Peas and he were part of the problem after seeing piled up plastic bottles after one of their concerts. So he got in touch with Coca-Cola. As a surprise speaker on the stage at BSR 2012, he shared how intimidated he felt when he first presented in front of the management team at the global beverage behemoth.
To overcome his nervousness, he reached into his soul reminding himself that he rocks crowds for a living. He then went in to the boardroom and used a scrap book he had made as a visual narrative to explain his idea of creating a new lifestyle brand, Ekocyckle, based on getting people to recycle more.
Marketing sustainability has been seen as a problem for decades, as corporate green washing made the rounds. But communicating sustainability is also part of the solution.
Connecting with the Soul of Your Organization
During another BSR breakout session featuring Steve Howard, IKEA’s SVP of Sustainability who spoke about the retailer’s new sustainability goals, explained how they connected to the soul of IKEA, of always saving resources in order to offer furniture to many more people at the lowest price possible. When Hervé Kempf, environmental editor at Le Monde, explained how he covers sustainability in the news, he explained a set of values that determine the soul of good journalism, thus earning the trust of the audience.
As consumers we need to be given hope in order to fuel our desire to change.
We want to hear that Walmart, through their range of sustainable goods, can help us save money and live better lives. And as Isabel Sebastian, an advisor to the Kingdom of Bhutan, pointed out, we can’t get happy if we only consume things because we desire them. We need to feel that these things also connect us to values in life that are important to us.
Still, a lot of brands out there sit in front of us with their images and sustainability efforts polished by identity stylists and makeup artists, expecting us to love them and to change behavior in a way that will benefit the planet as much as their bottom line. But more and more of us react as Platon, demanding that they give us their soul first.
Over at Madison Avenue, green tagline creation has begun to give way to creating sustainability narratives.
And that’s something that creates hope to move us forward.