Floods and heatwaves around the world highlight the need for businesses to take action to address climate change. Phil Rowley, Head of Futures at Omnicom Media Group UK, sets out a framework for marketers to use.
Businesses are reacting to the challenges of climate change, and as part of this global recalibration, we need a definitive set of principles to guide sustainable marketing – something enshrined for all brands to adhere to.
Frameworks do already exist, certainly, but they can sometimes compete with one another. Consequently, and despite good progress, there are gaps and overlaps.
To overcome this problem, I propose using something much simpler, that possesses real utility and cross-cultural appeal.
‘The Five Ps of Sustainability’, outlined in this article, use the same mnemonic and alliterative tricks that helped marketers develop close familiarity with another foundational theory: the ‘Four Ps of marketing’.
However, this time, the system should be a complete and modern reframing fit for the greatest challenge to face our generation
Persuading people to change how and what they buy to support a sustainable future is both difficult and complex. But we must start with the assumption that marketers – too often locked in urban and technocratic bubbles – do not know as much about their audiences as they might think.
This has become increasingly apparent in green marketing, and is rooted in the wider polarisation of society. It means persuasion in the era of climate change requires a much deeper level of understanding about people. This includes marketers themselves, who will need to be honest about their own shortcomings before they seek to change behaviours in others.
However, by segmenting messaging to span the divide between adopters and sceptics; telling positive and empowering stories fixed in the present; and finding creative ways to overhaul the often clichéd visual language of sustainability, marketers can usher in long-lasting, cross-generational and cross-cultural change.
Persuasion is key in any form of marketing, but in green comms it must be approached with real caution and nuance. So too must it be fully underpinned by the other 4 Ps.
‘Purpose’ has divided our industry into two camps; those who believe having a ‘why’ can increase sales and is more alluring to consumers, and those who believe that if it doesn’t contribute to the bottom line, then at best it’s fluff, and at worst a conscience-absolving exercise.
Yet when it comes to sustainability, such arguments can and should be set aside. Companies are increasingly acting with true benevolence because the human race is facing an existential threat. Under such circumstances, you’d expect that benevolence to be firmly wrapped in self-preservation.
Linking back to ROI is certainly still possible and naturally desirable, but it is not the goal. That is to help save the planet.
Consequently, having a sustainable ‘purpose’ provides a central, organising thought to inform both an internal company mission and an outward consumer-facing statement. A clear purpose helps define and set an achievable goal.
Purpose also helps ensure credibility and authenticity in the process, and is the foundation for making goals measurable - something that will become more important as common standards, per the UN’s SDGs, are developed and accepted across the world of business.
Having people use a product, or displaying a product on a shelf, is an often overlooked but very powerful advertising format. And ensuring your product is viable from a sustainability point of view, without any change in quality or price, places it in the supremely valuable position of working for both types of consumer: those that make sustainability the primary purchase decision, and those that choose quality or price first.
Ultimately, the world we want to build is one in which all products are sustainable, and adoption and innovation will bring about the economies of scale to achieve this. But it means marketers may need to think differently, too.
Green products embody the change businesses want to make, and they will attract green-minded customers. But only ‘subconscious consumerism’ strategies, that focus on adjacent benefits, will persuade sceptics.
Green products are no longer niche, but to ensure they become the de facto standard, they must be marketed at every type of consumer. Marketers should pay heed to Porsche; after releasing its electric Taycan model, the brand continued to focus on performance messages – and not its green status.
Only by shining a spotlight on our own behaviours can we hope to promote better ones in others.
Our industry cannot afford to be accused of hypocrisy; we must practice what we preach. This means setting the highest standards for ourselves and looking inwardly to check if our own house is in order.
From ensuring marketing agencies are doing enough to reduce their carbon footprints, to thinking differently about business travel, or efforts to make the production, planning and buying of ads greener, the industry is now testing and using a raft of solutions, including AdGreen, albert, Ad Net Zero and #Changethebrief Alliance.
Over the next decade, we can expect ‘deep tech’ to begin offering fixes to planetary problems. Based on hard science, deep tech includes disruptive solutions in the fields of biotech, nanotech, smart energy, food production and sustainability.
There is now a growing number of deep-tech start-ups seeking corporate partners as they look for marketability and scalability, and there will be huge opportunities to build long-term legacies by investing in the right partnerships.
If a business was looking to turbo-charge its sustainability credentials, disrupt a product category, or bring about profound and lasting change, then deep-tech partners are a likely catalyst.
Partnerships at this level will not work for every business, and they certainly won’t be the cheapest. But for the ones that get it right, it could genuinely secure them a place in history as sustainability pioneers.
Now is the time
The Five Ps of Sustainability are not just a set of principles, they are a checklist and a framework to ensure businesses are operating as they should internally, as much as saying the right things, in the right way, externally.
They are designed with simplicity and utility front of mind, which will help marketers act with more certainty and in a decisive manner on an issue that is now environmentally, ethically and economically impossible to ignore.
My hope is that they will empower adland to rise to the challenge – perfecting products and services, helping win hearts and minds, and building a sustainable future for everyone, including themselves.
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 free report here.