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Should Brands Be Using the "S" Word?

Reporting on the UN’s Rio+20 Earth Summit earlier this year, the Financial Times' environment correspondent, Pilita Clark, became so bored of the term ‘sustainable’ and its derivatives that she decided to make life more fun by replacing it in her mind with ‘sensual’:

"The world instantly changes: I feel far more cheerful thinking that I am about to hear about 'The Case for Corporate Sensuality Management,' 'Sensual Energy for All' or 'CEOs’ and NGOs’ Views on Innovation and Sensuality.' ”

I sympathise with Ms. Clark. Sustainability is a serious issue — with extremely serious implications for humankind, if not addressed. But if we want more people to act more sustainably, then we are going to have to lighten up a little.

I most recently experienced the unique combination of fatigue and frustration that sustainability can inspire in two separate conversations about how to make sustainability relevant to consumer brands. The story might be familiar: At a corporate level, a company has a clear and well-respected sustainability agenda. The company now wants to take its sustainability drive to the next level by making it a bigger part of its ‘consumer-facing’ brand(s). In doing so, it faces a big challenge: How do you introduce sustainability into a consumer brand in a way that makes people like it even more? How can a soft drink, mobile phone or handbag simultaneously become more sustainable and more desirable?

The low point of these conversations typically occurs when someone says something like, “We need to educate the consumer about the benefits of sustainability.” I understand the logic here — if people are educated to care about sustainability, then they will begin to behave more sustainably as a result. But there’s a big problem with this: Most of us don’t want to be educated by brands. If adults want to be educated, they read the paper, read a book, watch a documentary or listen to a TED talk. We do not seek education in the supermarket or on High Street. Attempting to educate an unwilling audience through the medium of consumer brands is an exercise in futility. And hoping that brands will make people care about sustainability is just as futile.

Most of the segmentation studies I’ve seen demonstrate that fewer than one in ten people are drawn to brands with a strong sustainability message. The rest of us are turned on by attributes that have little to do with the serious world of sustainability: style, sociability, status, competence and comfort. These are powerful motivators and sustainability as it is currently sold is too serious and sensible to care about. But sustainability can succeed if we adopt a new logic. Let’s not worry so much about making people care about sustainability. Let’s focus on making them behave more sustainably. This, after all, is ultimately what matters most, which is why Unilever has a behaviour change model, not an attitude-change model. Style, sociability, status, competence and comfort are the emotional levers that we can use to effect a change in behaviour.

Method provides a vivid example of how this works in practise. What should a sustainable cleaning product look like? It should probably be colourless to communicate purity. It should be naturally scented. Its packaging should mimic organic forms. Its name should communicate its care for the environment. There should be a splash of green somewhere. Method has none of these qualities. The product looks extremely chemical; it’s not the sort of thing you would feel comfortable pouring into a river. The packaging design is bold. The name communicates nothing. But it looks extremely stylish and appeals to those of us who want to make our homes stylish. The brand’s environmental credentials are a bonus. Method demonstrates that branding can be an extremely powerful tool for promoting sustainable living, but only when it is sensitive to what people actually care about. Marketers don’t have a responsibility to educate people about sustainability. We have a responsibility to demonstrate that a sustainable lifestyle can be stylish, or fun, or luxurious, or comfortable. We have an opportunity to sell sustainability as an aspirational way of life. If only we could stop being so serious.


Nick is responsible for guiding Dragon Rouge’s strategic offer across both business and consumer brands. His job is to ensure that our creativity is underpinned by great ideas. This involves balancing commercial rigour with creative potential, information with… [Read more about Nick Liddell]


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