Sustainability-Focused Marketing is Increasingly Under the Microscope

check mark graphic on tree tops

By Scott MacLeod, Director of Planning, VIA

By now it’s not news that climate change is a “once-in-a-generation” issue or that more and more brands and agencies are declaring grand sweeping plans to fight it by becoming more sustainable. Greening up their products, making long-term corporate commitments and using marketing campaigns to nudge public behaviors.

What’s becoming news is that the effectiveness of sustainability-focused marketing is increasingly under the microscope. Nielsen has uncovered that 55 percent of people aren’t convinced that brands are fostering true progress, with many companies espousing sustainable creds being deflated by alleged greenwashing claims and associated financial penalties.  On top of that, Peter Field’s 2021 study of purpose-led campaigns as a whole — and Mark Ritson’s subsequent critique — uncovered that most of these altruistic programs do not deliver the long-term business effects of their product-selling counterparts.

Using the tools of modern marketing to fight climate change is a valiant aim and — hopefully — companies will continue to slowly march towards reducing their environmental burden.

But it turns out we may be overlooking a subtler, simpler and more widespread way to make marketing sustainable. Rather than just scrambling for the latest sustainability PR hit around what they market, every marketer can decarbonize their advertising by rethinking how they market.

Here are a few ways that can happen:

  • Creating sustainable — not disposable — content. As we chase the dragon of virality and relevance by creating organic content calendars filled with posts for every fake holiday, somehow, the top commenter is often the Community Manger and the Brand Manager. Despite their best efforts, most brands reach less than 5 percent of their organic audiences with this content. On top of that, there’s a double whammy that creating “snackable” content with micro-budgets often defaults to the left-brain “blanding” tendencies that effectiveness expert Orlando Wood rails against, such as flatness, obtruding words and repetitive soundtracks. The solution? Creating fewer, more enduring, right-brain focused assets that tug at emotions over disposable ads that hammer selling propositions.
  • Making programmatic media more “precise”. 88 percent of digital ad spend is programmatic. But as Bob Hoffman’s brilliantly vulgar “programmatic poop funnel” laid out, only roughly $0.03 of what’s spent in programmatic media actually makes it to the intended audience. Which means the vast majority of computing power – and associated environmental burden – used to target, audit and filter that media is wasted. Tightening the focus on where media is running and understanding the incremental benefit of brokered data (and the associated computing power required to crunch it) means a lighter environmental footprint – and fewer annoying ads.
  • Getting back to basics. Time has proven that the fundamentals from Byron Sharp, Jenni Romaniuk and their team at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute are essential (if too often overlooked) for modern marketing. But according to a new report from WARC on the Net Zero Economy, they have a double impact when marketers want to clean up their environmental footprint. More reach to more people means not oversaturating feeds or wasting impressions. Distinctive assets cue brands and feelings easier, requiring less investment to trigger the same reactions – and ideally link product benefits to any sustainability commitments – think Tide detergent’s Cold Call campaign. The message to marketers? How Brands Grow can be a manual for more effective and sustainable marketing.

Like our individual acts of recycling and composting, these brand actions on their own won’t be remotely close enough to hold us to a 1.5C temperature rise.  And advertising’s role in manufacturing needs and stimulating our consumption-hungry society is a colossal drain on environmental resources. But if the promise of a more sustainable approach can make those of us in creative companies pull back on throw-away content, overengineered media targeting and hyper-saturated feeds, we might just make a tiny bit of headway towards a greener planet.