6 Steps to a Sustainable Marketing Strategy

Start Reading

In the digital era, consumers have access to more information and choices than ever before. Attention spans are shorter, same day delivery is an option, and to make sales, brands have to stand out in a sea of competitors. User experience is essential, but it will only take you so far.

To capture attention and move hearts and minds, brands need something more. 

Marketing expert Seth Godin explains that, when you’re driving past fields and fields of cows, they quickly become boring. But a purple cow would stand out and capture your interest, for a little while. He suggests that brands work on becoming the purple cow. 

Over the past decade, many brands have turned their attention to purpose, in an attempt to find their ‘purple cow’ factor. 

From saving the planet to taking a stand on social issues – some brands are walking the walk (and reaping the benefits), but we’re also frequently seeing others get it wrong and face a backlash. 

In a world where ‘content is king’ and brands are under pressure to churn out more and more media across different channels to connect with their audience, creating a sense of shared values can be one of the best ways to stand out from the crowd.

If you’re looking to make your brand more relevant and engaging, increase your conversion rates, and have a positive impact for people and planet, then embedding sustainability in your marketing strategy is the way to go.

88% of consumers want brands to help them live sustainably FUTERRA

According to 2021 research by Deloitte, nearly 1 in 3 consumers claim to have stopped purchasing certain brands or products because they had ethical or sustainability related concerns about them.

Plus, 85% of investors considered ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) factors in their investments in 2020, according to Gartner. Just as it has in consumer markets, the depth of understanding around sustainability and social responsibility will continue to grow in the financial sector, and investors will increasingly require more substantial commitments, progress and data from the companies they invest in.

Your customers, stakeholders and financial backers are increasingly expecting your brand to care about more than profit, and to be making a positive impact. 

So how can you get started with sustainable marketing?


Step One: Know your audiences

The first step to any successful marketing strategy, sustainability-focused or not, is to know your audiences.

Achieving sustainable change within your organization will require staff buy-in, so there’s your internal audience to consider. 

If you’ve got investors, you’ll need to demonstrate the financial viability of your eco decisions.

And chances are, your product or service appeals to multiple different customer demographics, with their own values, priorities and preferences – so taking a segmented approach to your public-facing message is essential.

Sustainability is complex and multifaceted. For each audience segment, you need to know what their priorities are, what they’re doing in their own lives to be more eco-friendly, and what obstacles they’re facing. You need to tap into their expectations of brands to create and leverage messaging that really resonates with them.

That’s why we take an audience-first approach to any strategy or campaign we design.


Step Two: Navigate the attitude/behaviour gap

When you start digging into audience data around sustainability and ethical purchasing, you’ll notice one trend that’s common across all stakeholders: the attitude/behaviour gap.

While consumers frequently say they’re making eco-swaps, and are willing to spend more on ethical and sustainable products, spending data doesn’t always corroborate these survey responses.

Skeptics use this to claim that consumers don’t really care. And the majority of people will list price and convenience as higher driving factors behind their buying decisions than sustainability – which seems to support this theory.

But this doesn’t mean people aren’t voting with their wallets.

Research by Deloitte shows a number of areas where people do elevate other criteria, but in a more nuanced way. 

For example, a third of consumers aged 25 and younger see sustainability as a top priority for beauty and personal care products. globally, 57% of consumers indicate that they are more loyal to brands that commit to addressing social inequalities. And for banking decisions, nearly a quarter emphasised data privacy as a key requirement to winning their business –  something that can be achieved through good governance and promoted in you messaging to win customers through an ESG-focused communications strategy.

It’s clear that brands need to deliver price and quality as a minimum standard to win business – but these are not differentiators. 

Purpose-related factors can become a competitive advantage when personalised and tailored to your product category and audience demographics.

When you know exactly who your brand is for and what they care about, you can align your ESG strategy with their expectations and position your purpose to give you the competitive edge. But broad ‘green’ statements won’t be enough to convince, convert and compete.

Like many brands, you might have a tree planting scheme in place. Hopefully you’ve done your due diligence to ensure that your chosen impact partner is as green as they claim (unfortunately, not all of them are). And you’re probably ready to proudly start declaring that you plant a tree for every new follower, email subscriber or purchase.

Tree planting is an important cause. But unfortunately for your brand, it’s not necessarily going to be a primary driving factor in your customer’s purchase decision, and with almost every eco brand signing up to some sort of tree planting pledge, it’s not unique enough to help you stand out in the market. If you make it your primary messaging, you might overshadow some of the other key factors that would increase your sales.

At this point, you have two options.

You could take an audience-first approach. Find out exactly which part of your tree planting story will resonate most with your audience segments, and design your campaigns around that. 

For example, one segment might feel really closely connected with nature, and tuned into the mental health benefits of being outdoors. Focusing your tree planting messaging on how you’re helping restore beautiful natural environments for people to experience and enjoy might be a more effective way to go. This would work really well if your product is in the wellness space and has mental health benefits too. (However, be careful who you partner with to deliver your tree planting if you’re taking this approach. Many schemes actually use monoculture plantations, which can be ugly at best and harmful to the natural environment at worst).

Another segment might be animal lovers, and you might choose to focus more on how trees are important wildlife habitats, and by planting them you’re protecting biodiversity (but again, make sure the planting scheme you partner with has the evidence to support these claims).

Alternatively, your second option is a bit more radical…

Step Three: Stand out in a sea of competitors by subverting your category

Every industry and brand category has an expected set of ‘norms’ – conventions followed by the majority of brands in that sector. And most marketing abides by these formulaic rules, which is why brands in saturated categories find it so hard to stand out from their competitors.

Lager brands, for example, all seem to sponsor football. Car adverts usually feature the same shot of the car handling a bend in the road through the countryside, regardless of the brand. Watch adverts almost always show the hands at a few minutes either side of 10:10 – a time specifically chosen to frame the logo!

This “safety in numbers” approach helps agencies justify their creative decisions. They can point to several other competitors where the formula is working, to reassure the C-Suite that their campaign pitch is a safe bet. 

But in reality, if someone else is running similar ads to you, both brands are in trouble. To really get cut-through and be memorable, you need to be unique.

Which is why the best marketing campaigns take the rules of their category, and subvert them.

The best marketing and advertising achieves the attention-grabbing “stop scroll” factor. 

At a subconscious level, our brains are hardwired to be constantly scanning our environment for threats. When something is familiar to us, it’s unthreatening, and after a while, we tune it out.

But when we see something unexpected, it stops us in our tracks. It grabs our attention, because we have to assess whether it’s a threat or not.

Of course, you don’t want to take this so far that you trigger your audience’s survival instincts. If they enter “fight, flight or freeze” mode, they won’t be receptive to your messages any more. But if you can subvert the rules of your category just enough to present the unexpected, in a way that still feels safe and trusted, you can gain real cut-through that gives you the competitive edge.

Again, this must be driven by your audience insights.

For example, to come back to the lager brands – if they all continue to follow the same sponsorship formula to showcase their branding at football matches, and incorporate football into their television ads and OOH campaigns, nobody will take the market lead because they’re all blending in.

But, if they were to deep dive into audience data and behavioural trends, and split their budget across more segmented campaigns, they could achieve greater ROI and take a share of new markets.

For example, many of these brands are launching low-alcohol or alcohol-free versions of their product, in response to changing drinking habits – especially among younger generations. 

Many products and brands in this category are seen as “old man pub” products; viewed as low quality, cheap and cheerful. While young people are drinking less, they are choosing premium craft products when they do consume alcohol. So product diversification is essential for these brands, and must be supported by brand repositioning and a diversified communications strategy too.

These consumers want premium taste, and premium experience. Carlsberg have already begun to reposition with this in mind, with a roll out including a new brew, new packaging, taps and glassware, and a rename to Carlsberg Danish Pilsner – to play up its international heritage. 

While this positioning might not align well with side-of-pitch football advertising anymore, the brand doesn’t have to abandon their core football fan audiences as they reposition. 

Audience data suggests that younger fans don’t see football as an isolated hobby. They want it to merge with lifestyle, fashion, music, film and gaming. 

Football shirts are enjoying a fashion moment, stocked in the high-end sports stores of New York, Tokyo, Paris and Berlin, and 55% of young fans say they now expect music to be part of their football experience.

A subversive, audience-first approach would suggest that brands like Carlsberg should bring their repositioned products and branding to the digital stage, using new media and leveraging influencers, celebrities, musicians and designers to create a blended experience which engages younger audiences across the spectrum of their lifestyle. This would achieve a greater sense of relevance and make their products the front-of-mind choice for these demographics.

To come back to the brands with tree planting programmes – if you’ve identified that your audience will resonate most with how you’re restoring nature, you might be better placed investing in projects which protect existing forests. If it’s the biodiversity they care about, a rewilding project might be a better fit for you. Or, digging into your insights, you might find that actually your audience feels a stronger connection to the ocean. You could achieve your same carbon offsetting goals by opting for seaweed carbon sequestration, instead of trees. It’s faster, doesn’t require fresh water, and when all your competitors are planting trees, you’ll be able to capture attention by talking about this lesser-known, but incredibly powerful, carbon offsetting method. Seaweed could be your purple cow.

This subversive approach is exactly why, as a sustainability and ESG focused communications agency, we chose a more industrial, architectural look and feel for our brand. To bring the institutional credibility and stability that reflects our depth of knowledge and experience, in a visual language that feels comfortable to our corporate and luxury clients. But in a way that subverts the norms of our category. No leafy green colour palettes or nature-themed photography, which are the norm for eco-focused agencies. 

Our identity reflects the qualities that matter most to our clients – expertise, credibility, reliability and results. We’re on our way to Net Zero, we have a sustainable procurement policy, and we’re incredibly proud of our ESG commitments, so sustainability comes as standard at 181st Street. But we know that’s not why people buy from us.

For our clients, their business results are the core focus, because if they’re not profitable, successful market leaders, they can’t contribute to social or environmental change. ESG is a priority, but it’s part of a bigger journey, and when they look at our brand, we want them to know that we can help them commercially too.

We’re not afraid to subvert the rules to get results. Our audience-first approach and unrivalled level of audience understanding means we can make brave, bold, data-driven decisions that stand out and don’t play it safe. And as experiential experts, we position our clients in exciting and unexpected ways that engage their core audiences and increase conversion. So we need that experience to be reflected in our own branding too!

Step Four: Avoid greenwashing and stay compliant

Whether you’re subverting your category or not, if you’re embracing sustainability marketing, then there are some rules that can’t be broken.

In the UK, advertising standards and trading standards are starting to come down heavily on misleading green claims in advertising and marketing. The Competition and Markets Authority published “The Green Claims Code” in 2021 to guide businesses on how to position their sustainability claims without greenwashing – making their product, brand, business or operations seem more eco-friendly than they really are.

With rising consumer interest in sustainability, and 57% of UK consumers saying they are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products (even if there is an attitude/behaviour gap), eco-credentials can be appealing and influential when it comes to buying decisions (if they’re positioned correctly!) – and it’s unfair to consumers if those credentials transpire to be untrue.

This is against consumer protection law, and brands that make unsubstantiated claims can be fined and even face prosecution.

If you’re going to leverage sustainability in your marketing, you need the operational commitments within your business to back it up. Your company should have a sustainability policy in place, have committed to tangible environmental action, and should be providing evidence to support the impact you’re talking about.

Make sure you’re up to speed with the Green Claims Code requirements before you start talking publicly about sustainability.

Step Five: Prepare your people

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 81% of people expect CEOs to be publicly visible and speak out on societal issues, with 68% saying that CEOs should inform and shape conversations and policy debates about global warming and climate change.

If your brand is going to take a stand, it can’t be siloed to the marketing department. Your green credentials must be embedded in your supply chains, systems and processes, and buy-in to the message must extend all the way to the C-Suite to really be effective.

However, as much as people want to hear from CEOs, 63% of the public are worried they are being lied to by business leaders, who are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations. 

There’s no denying that encouraging your leaders to speak out brings risks as well as benefits. Political divisions are so strong, fuelled by social media echo-chambers, that taking a stand on an issue risks alienating those who don’t share the same views. 

Brands must have a deep understanding of their audiences to know exactly who they are for, and who they are not. Keep your core audiences loyal, and make sure you’re prepared to weather a potential press or social media storm from those that disagree.

Brand stewardship is key. Someone in every organisation should be assessing the risks involved in every opportunity (or you should be hiring a specialist agency to do it for you). From running due diligence before endorsing influencers by bringing them into your campaign, to media training your leadership team to tackle the tough questions and stay on message, even when provoked.

When you prepare for, mitigate and manage reputation risk, and leverage your leaders as key spokespeople, you can be bolder in your communications, and proactively pursue new opportunities to take your message mainstream with confidence.

Step Six: Take your message mainstream & create behaviour change

If you’ve embedded sustainability at a business and product level, you’re ready to start rolling out your sustainable marketing.

Your green mission and messages will resonate within the eco echo-chamber, and when you’ve worked hard as a business to transform your supply chain and meet high standards, it’s natural to want to shout about all your achievements.

But from your audience data, you should already be aware that your sustainable credentials aren’t necessarily the thing that will convert followers to customers.

This is where most brands in this sector struggle. They focus too much on their positive impact, or sustainability story as a company, and not enough on what their product or service can actually do for the end user.

There are negative stereotypes about the quality of green products you’ll need to overcome, and chances are, if you’ve really embedded sustainability, you’ll find yourself under pressure to justify a higher price point too.

Solid ethics and sustainable credentials are all well and good, but if nobody is buying your product, your business won’t be around long enough to create real change. And as we move to a world with more regulation around carbon emissions, and deeper consumer understanding and expectation about all things eco, these messages won’t be a differentiator, they will just be business as usual.

So how can you go mainstream, inspire others with your sustainability story, and still encourage them to buy?

For that, you need behavioural science.

Audience data will tell you who is mostly likely to buy from you, and which messages will resonate most with them. Behavioural science insights will tell you how to convince them to take action. Combine both together, and you’ve got a high converting communications strategy.

This is why, at 181st Street, we always take a solutions-focused approach. We design all messages, adverts and campaigns with the end behaviour change in mind. Because when you know what you want people to do as a result, you can work backwards and embed the triggers to make it happen.

Whether it’s reframing your climate messaging so you stop scaring away potential supporters, segmenting your audiences to weather times of change, or repositioning your strategy to reach a mainstream market, understanding and embedding behaviour change principles from the start will help make sure you achieve your desired outcome.

For example, many sustainable fashion brands focus their messaging on how bad fast fashion is for the planet, and how eco-friendly their products are as an alternative. But understanding the behavioural science behind how and why mainstream fashion consumers make their purchasing decisions, shows that this is totally the wrong approach if you want to break out of the eco echo-chamber.

Firstly, there’s our old friends quality and price to deal with. 

Consumers have a quality bias when it comes to eco products. Bryan Ursey, a professor at Norwich Business School, found that when a brand highlights the sustainable attributes of a product, consumers think that the implicit message is that the product will perform worse than its less sustainable counterpart. 

And, while most consumers are aware of the “true cost” of fast fashion, it isn’t enough to stop them buying cheap clothing. Spending money triggers our “loss aversion” and makes us feel bad. 56% of shoppers in a US survey felt “extremely guilty” or a “little bit guilty” after buying an expensive item. And psychologists have found that we feel the pain of loss much stronger than the pleasure of gaining something. To try and reduce this pain, but still achieve the hit of happy hormone dopamine that shopping gives us, we turn to buying often and buying cheap – and the fast fashion model feeds this perfectly.

Furthermore, fashion commands a special place in people’s lives. 65% of women and 56% of men feel their self-confidence is “strongly influenced” by the clothes they wear. 

Many fashion consumers associate fashion with self-expression; they want to consume the fashion they enjoy. On the other hand, when it comes to sustainable fashion, the most common sentiment is guilt (a negative emotion we seek to avoid) and half of consumers are not even sure what sustainability in the context of fashion means. 

Just 38% of people buy fashion based on the sustainability of production processes, and just 23% do so because of the brand’s labour policy.

41% of shoppers believe fashion shopping is “already enough of a chore,” without having to think about sustainability.

Sustainable brands often double down on this, using their platforms to try and educate consumers about sustainability and justify their higher prices, without considering whether this messaging will actually shift their audiences’ behaviour.

With the UK Competition and Markets Authority finding that 40% of green claims made online are misleading, and only one-fifth of consumers saying they trust the sustainability claims made by brands, pushing your sustainability message to the front and centre to try and convince a mainstream audience to buy is unlikely to work.

Behavioural science and audience intelligence data combined would recommend a different approach.

People buy fashion as a way of expressing themselves and feeling good. 44% of consumers feel that making sustainable choices in other parts of their lives compensates for less sustainable choices in fashion. It’s an area of spending that is drenched in guilt, shame and low self-esteem.

However, sustainable brands can turn this narrative around. Seeking third party verification for your eco claims is essential to establish consumer trust – but don’t fall into the trap of putting this messaging front and centre just because you put a lot of hard work into getting certified.

Instead, bring your messaging back to your audiences’ motivation. They want to feel good, and wear clothes that tell the world who they are. If you want your ethical and sustainable clothes to go mainstream, embrace this.

Build marketing campaigns based on aspiration; be a mirror reflecting back the best possible version of themselves. Embed your ethical values by reflecting diversity, body positivity, and inclusion in your campaigns. Tune your sustainability messages into your audiences’ key priorities, and tell the story in a way that enables them to become your storyteller. This will help you leverage word of mouth marketing to take a bigger market share, and position your products as an investment your customers are making in themselves and their values, making it easier to justify the higher price point based on personal connection and self esteem – factors – which rank as higher priority in the spending process than environmental concern.

Whether you’re already running an eco-focused business, and you’re looking to break into the mainstream, or you’re a mainstream brand wanting to “go green” – sustainable marketing can help you tap into the growing consumer demand for brands to take a stand and create positive change.

Sustainability is more than just a trend. The youngest consumer generations are the most values-driven, and their spending power is only going to grow over the next decade – a time period in which the impacts of the climate emergency will become even more front-of-mind for consumers all around the world. The expectation for businesses to play their part isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

But, as you’ve seen from these 6 steps, there are obstacles to overcome. While true eco credentials might be a ‘purple cow’ right now, as legislation catches up and more brands get on board, sustainability is going to become ‘business as usual’. Which is good news, because audience behavioural data suggests that putting it at the front and centre of your messaging isn’t an effective way to drive sales anyway. 

Your sustainability must be embedded in your business before you embed it in your brand, which might mean, as a marketeer, you need to forge stronger relationships with other teams, leverage more influence with the C-Suite, or even drive internal communications campaigns to get buy-in. 

Understanding your external audiences, their priorities and their buying behaviour is also key. Like any good communications strategy, sustainable or not, your route forward should be data-driven and focused on leveraging insights to create behaviour change and increase conversion.

At 181st Street, we’ve been working in sustainability for the past decade – since before Blue Planet II and the wave of awareness that created, and before words like “climate emergency” were mainstream headlines. We’ve taken hundreds of eco-friendly brands and products mainstream, and we’d love to support you. If you’re ready to work on your sustainable marketing strategy, but you’re not sure where to start, get in touch.