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5 Types of Sustainability Marketing Tactics Corporate Execs Need to Understand, and Utilize, Better

Sustainability marketing is a strange and special animal. To be effective, it needs to popularize the work of sustainability teams, which tends to be based on rigorous systems thinking, carefully and scientifically considering the whole picture before suggesting ways to improve it. And of course, sustainability marketing also needs to be as sexy and appealing as successful mainstream marketing. Striking that kind of balance is not easy, and there certainly has been significant progress over the last few years. At the same time, there still are some important sustainability marketing tactics that are not understood and adopted well enough.

1. How to make the most of partnerships with celebrities and other influential societal voices

Brands have been partnering successfully with celebrities and other influential societal voices such as policy makers, athletes and NGOs, for a long time. However, successful spreading of sustainability-inspired messaging and behavior, in particular, has been rarely achieved through such partnerships to date. When will sustainable products, services, values or actions become as mainstream and culturally influential as Air Jordan, for example? I hope soon. In the meantime, a few recent campaigns have come quite close, in my observation, and need to be given credit for that.

Like it or not, Pope Francis may be the most influential sustainability advocate to date. I doubt that you missed his authoritative and compelling “encyclical” on the environment. It will surely remain as a significant milestone in the history of environmentalism and sustainability – maybe even a turning point in global discussions on climate change and other pressing issues.

Stand for Trees, a collaboration led by non-profit CodeREDD, is running a first-of-its kind consumer campaign that enables everyone — not just companies — to purchase verified carbon offsets. What’s most remarkable about this is the unprecedented success of the main engagement tool the campaign is relying on, a video by social media celebrity Prince Ea, entitled “Dear Future Generations: Sorry.” It broke the record for most viral environmental campaign to date with more than 20 million views in its first 24 hours and over 16,000 tonnes of CO2 offset in the first two days.

2. How to source innovation outside the confines of tradition R&D teams and processes

There is a growing, though still quite short, list of brands encouraging social and environmental entrepreneurship through crowdsourcing campaigns, competitions and other types of acceleration. Typically, the ultimate goal of such initiatives would be to fold winning ideas into the sponsoring brand’s portfolio, incentivizing and rewarding a wide pool of innovators in the process in order to achieve transformative innovation faster than the brand’s internal R&D processes would.

One prominent example is Unilever’s Foundry IDEAS platform, which acts as a digital hub for consumers and entrepreneurs to work together on tackling global sustainability challenges. Another is H&M’s partnership with DoSomething.org to launch the Close the Loop College Cup competition, incentivizing U.S. college students and faculty to innovate means to higher recycling rates for clothing. Still another is LEGO’s Sustainable Materials Centre, a commitment to tapping all employees of the company in an effort to come up with alternative, non-fossil-based raw materials to manufacture LEGO toys and packaging.

3. How to encourage moderate consumption without compromising the bottom line

Patagonia has done it, famously, with its “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign. Are there others out there trying – and succeeding – in pulling off this all-too-crucial balancing act? Again, too few, if you ask me. We have to make a point of thinking and acting more on this.

I’ve been very impressed with Heineken’s work on this. The Enjoy Heineken Responsibly (EHR) campaign, a multi-pronged effort that has featured a number of ads and some unique social experiments demonstrating the aspirational value of moderate consumption of alcohol, seems to be getting across effectively with many demographics and cultures. Already activated in more than 40 markets, 10 percent of the company’s media budget is explicitly dedicated to the campaign. The brand is pushing on, conceiving and fine-tuning local partnerships that are reinforcing the unifying global message.

Another way to approach this type of sustainability marketing tactic is through entirely new business models that reduce the impacts of consumption by design. Compelling examples of this include: Mud Jeans, which leases jeans instead of selling them, encouraging customers to swap or return them after use; Terracycle, which excels at ‘making garbage great’ by converting used packaging and other waste to various branded assets; and Rapanui, which set out to be a next-generation, materially lean sustainable enterprise in all it’s doing from the beginning, earning acknowledgement from big names including Sirs David Attenborough, Richard Branson and Ranulph Fiennes.

All these topics will be discussed in depth at SB'15 London. Join us and learn from IBM, Kering, Unilever, Marks & Spencer, BASF, IKEA, Rapanui, Mud Jeans, Prince Ea, Heineken and more.

4. How to quickly employ new data analyses that aren’t yet commonly accepted or performed

This is probably the most accessible type of tactic in this list, and yet it is quite fascinating, in a not-so-pleasing kind of way, to observe how slowly certain breakthrough applications of clearly useful new data are being adopted. Take Kering’s environmental profit and loss (E P&L) statement, for example — the first version was released by Kering’s brand Puma all the way back in 2011, it has proven so valuable (for a variety of purpose, including marketing and PR) that the parent company did it for all its brands and even released the methodology to the public domain to speed up wider adoption. But despite all of that, only a handful of other companies have added an E P&L to their arsenal of sustainability tools.

In a similar spirit, I’ve recently been introduced to the EMEA head of IBM’s Watson supercomputer and started learning about the vast potential Watson and similar technologies offer in terms of accessing real-time market intelligence and new modes of stakeholder engagement. Cognitive computing, and natural language processing in particular, can make sense of huge quantities of previously-untapped data, finding details and patterns that help explain complex stakeholder interactions and company performance. Retail, entertainment, hospitality, air travel and quite a number of other industries have been leveraging this new type of data analysis for years now, though not for any sustainability-related purposes.  

5. How to build an internal company culture that screams both ‘successful’ and ‘sustainable’ externally

If there is one thing that brands and individuals have in common, it is that sooner or later their identity, character and internal dialogue are inevitably projected externally, one way or another. Building an optimal company culture — for whatever purpose or set of purposes — is a challenging and often long process, and it is no wonder that embedding sustainability values throughout entire organizations has been achieved only by a select few to date. What’s striking to me, however, is that many brands are not even trying, or want to try but don’t seem to know what level of aspiration to set, how to begin and how to assess specific steps on a journey to company-wide culture change. There is a lot to learn from some of the leaders in this kind of exercise, including Unilever, Marks & Spencer, GSK and O2 Telefonica, among others.

As always, I’d be curious to hear what sustainability, brand and marketing professionals think about all of this — feel free to share your reaction in the comments section below. We at Sustainable Brands are strongly in favor of wider sustainability-related adoption of the five types of tactics described above, and we are doing our part to help. We’ll be tackling all of these topics at Sustainable Brands ’15 London in November, and some (the fourth and fifth) in just a few weeks at New Metrics ’15 in early October. 


Dimitar is the Director of Content Development at Sustainable Brands. He joined the team after earning a Master’s degree in Management Science & Engineering – focused on sustainable business – from Stanford University. Before Stanford, Dimitar worked in international development… [Read more about Dimitar Vlahov]


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