Want To Grow A Sustainable Brand? Don’t Advertise to Environmental Activists, Do This Instead

By Florencia Lujani, Strategy Director at Media Bounty

Sustainable products are growing rapidly in the UK, but there is a huge overlooked opportunity.

New research from the House of Lords has shown that one-third of carbon reductions will need to come from consumers adopting low-carbon lifestyles, which is easier said than done.

However, we believe marketers have been speaking to the wrong crowd. No, we’re not going to larp on about “ethical consumers” (sorry, they don’t exist!). Instead, we’re going to turn to the data (discovered through our latest research report, ‘Beyond the Climate Bubble”) and reveal a massive untapped opportunity for sustainable brands across a variety of different sectors.

Did you know that 69% of the UK population believe climate change is happening and agree that taking action for the environment will benefit them in the long term? At the same time, while these individuals are not too engaged with the topic, almost never discuss it and don’t think it’s a priority, they would like to do their bit about it.

We call this group the Persuadables. These consumers represent both the largest commercial opportunity for sustainable brands and hold an immense potential to create positive change for the planet.

While most brands advertise to an eco-conscious minority, we believe it’s well and truly time to flip the script, get to know this audience and make our advertising more effective.

Marketing needs to catch up with audience behaviour 

So, who are the Persuadables? Good question.

These individuals aren’t usually the target for sustainable products – they include older people, those with a working-class background, those who identify as an ethnic minority, or those who live outside the UK’s big cities.

Finding ways to reach the 69% is the key to growing sustainable brands. At Media Bounty, we teamed up with cultural insights agency Bricolage and travelled to Birmingham, Yorkshire and Newcastle to run a 3-month qualitative research project to investigate and better understand the Persuadables.

We adopted this approach rooted in cultural insights because we wanted to understand how to make sustainability part of Persuadables’ worlds. With the cost of living crisis and a looming global recession causing distress for Persuadables up and down the country, sustainable brands need to recognise that preaching environmental benefits coded in activism isn’t the right approach. Other factors such as value for money, familiarity with the brand and reliability of the product are far stronger when it comes to making purchase decisions. Our findings reveal an important learning: to reach an untapped cohort of consumers, marketing and advertising campaigns need to look beyond the vocal minority and instead focus on the lived realities of this silent majority we call Persuadables.  Based on that, how do we make sustainability a driver?

Quick-win advertising strategies to grow market share

After months of research, we’ve analysed the data and translated these learnings into a thoughtful guide when planning future campaigns. Here are some of our recommendations

1. Cost of living crisis: sustainable shouldn’t mean out of reach

Sustainability has always felt like somewhat of a ‘premium’ purchase for Persuadable audiences, but this issue has been compounded by the cost of living crisis. In fact, the data shows it’s becoming harder for people to make more sustainable choices.

Kantar’s Sustainability Index found 65% of respondents want to be mindful of the planet but say higher prices prevent them from doing so. What’s more, ‘green’ products are on average 75-85% more expensive, which cr

eates an unavoidable gap between a genuine intention to buy sustainably and the eventual outcome.

In short, pricing is sabotaging sustainability, and it’s putting ethical products out of reach for millions of consumers. As one Persuadable from Yorkshire noted in our research, “With the cost of living, there’s a lot of pressure. I think we need some incentives and success stories.”

To combat this, sustainable brands need to take an honest and objective look at cost across the whole value chain – from production to wholesale and retail. We are by no means suggesting that brands put ethical commitments at risk, but those that can identify ways to reduce mark-ups and avoid price inflation will see greater uptake.

Ultimately, it’s about ditching the green tax and prioritising long-term profit gains over short-term KPIs.

2. Crack the cultural codes

Understanding culture was at the core of this research. At Media Bounty, we analysed dozens of sustainable advertising campaigns and cross-referenced these with our research results. We found a marked discrepancy between Persuadables’ experiences and those depicted in mainstream advertising.

When asked about sustainable products, Persuadables tend to answer “they’re not for me”. To overcome this, brands need to use creative, imagery and copy that reflects their families, neighbourhoods, accents and ways of living  across the UK and outside big cities. By playing back these cultural nuances to a Persuadable audience, brands can create awareness, consideration and relevance for an audience that historically has not been marketed to.

Brands that demonstrate a genuine understanding of the cultural codes and nuances at play can unlock massive opportunities – not only to drive demand for products and services, but also to contribute to the changes in attitudes and behaviours towards sustainability that society needs.

3. Funny or die (literally)

Finally, humour creates more effective advertising in every category, and this applies to sustainability too. It can break down barriers and encourage a new type of conversation. The unfortunate truth is that much of the sustainable advertising we see paints a rather sobering and serious picture. Climate change may be a serious issue, but that doesn’t mean our marketing has to be.

For many Persuadables, the natural reaction to climate change is to feel scared and overwhelmed. However, humour can overcome all the doom and gloom, serving as a powerful tool to differentiate products in a competitive or dry category. It can also help reframe an issue and create strong emotional associations, making people more likely to share content that feels humorous and relevant.

For example, General Motors’ Super Bowl ad, aimed at promoting its lineup of electric vehicles, used Will Ferrell’s mastery of surreal comedy to pit Norway and the US against each other in the race for EVs. It was silly, funny and unforgettable – but it spoke to a Persuadable audience in an entertaining way that is markedly different from most sustainable ad campaigns. Don’t be afraid to embrace memes, pop culture and the occasional tongue-in-cheek language to bring people on the journey with you.

Bringing sustainable advertising from niche to norm

As sustainable brands revisit advertising campaigns in 2023, now is the time to rethink audience targeting, ditch the green tax, embrace new cultures and lean into humour.

Adopting these strategies will help brands take sustainable advertising from an eco-conscious niche to a mainstream norm. But don’t forget to address immediate concerns such as price, familiarity and reliability.

By reducing the gap between intention and action, sustainable brands can reach a new Persuadable audience that will improve commercial outcomes and make the planet a better place, too.