How to take your sustainable brand mainstream (without alienating your core audiences)

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There’s a trajectory that’s becoming increasingly common for eco-focused brands as the sustainability sector matures. As new startups, they amass a following from the core green demographics; consumers who are already brought into the behaviour change needed to tackle the climate emergency.

This audience are considerate consumers. They’re well aware that the most sustainable option is the one they don’t buy. And they’ve been burnt by greenwashing before. They know their facts and stats, and aren’t afraid to dig into your data to check that you’re actually as eco as you say you are. They’re a tough crowd to please, and not always quick to part with their cash, but get things right, and these ‘armchair activists’, who are highly active and engaged on social media, will be your biggest champions.

But as your brand grows and you look to increase your market share, you’re likely to find yourself running up against the ‘attitude/behaviour gap’ and feeling frustrated that while many consumers say they care about the environment, actually getting them to part with their money and do something about it is another matter.

The green mission and messages that won the hearts and minds of your early eco adopters aren’t enough to convert consumers in the more mainstream market. You need to work harder to tap into their personal (and often subconscious) motivations to sell your product and implement behavioural science insights to nudge them towards more sustainable action to achieve your mission too. 

And you might even be battling negative stereotypes that lead to an unconscious bias that ‘eco friendly’ alternatives just aren’t as good. Whether that’s true or not, if your potential customers are thinking it (and behavioural science studies suggest that they are), it’s a barrier you need to overcome in your marketing.

At this point, two things have probably become your strategic priority: widening your reach, and proving your credibility. Smart marketers know that social proof is the way to go. 

In 2008, Professor of Psychology and Marketing Robert Cialdini and his co-authors worked with an American hotel to adapt the messages left in rooms trying to encourage towel reuse. 

The first message conveyed the environmental benefits of reusing a towel, and was successful among 35% of visitors.

The second message leveraged social proof – explaining that most people reuse their towels – known as a ‘descriptive norm’ message. This boosted reuse to 44% – a 9 point uplift from the environmental message. 

But this went even further when they ran a third message telling guests that most other guests who stayed in their particular room reuse their towels. This more relevant message boosted compliance to 49%.

Founder-owned eco businesses tend to fall into a common trap when it comes to marketing. They’re so passionate about sustainability, and have worked so hard to reach their high eco and ethical standards, that they don’t know which message works for which audience, and they want to talk about all their achievements. They struggle to simplify the complex evidence that shows how green they are, find storytelling hard, and end up overwhelming their audiences. Sometimes they’re so blinded by their own green credentials that they forget the most crucial part of communications – what your product can actually do for your audience. 

One solid shampoo bar company we supported saw a significant uptick in sales as soon as they shifted their messaging from how many plastic bottles each purchased saved, to how nourishing the bars are for your hair. Streamlining their reviews onto Trustpilot and leveraging these in their paid ads helped to demonstrate social proof and overcome the negative bias that was preventing conversions when the focus of the messaging was environmental.

One of the reasons that core green consumers become so loyal to brands is that they don’t always see themselves represented in the mainstream market. Eco-focused brands can leverage shared values to create a sense that their brand is “for people like me” among their core audience, tapping into social proof and relevance to drive engagement and conversion.

But this is a consumer group that often prides themselves on having rejected mainstream convention. So it’s very difficult to maintain relevance with these core demographics and establish mainstream relevance with new audiences at the same time. Which is why it’s not unusual to witness a consumer backlash, Twitter storm, or even a full blown PR crisis when sustainably-focused brands try to go mainstream and alienate their original supporters in the process.

Unfortunately, if this is handled badly, it can do lasting damage to your brand’s reputation, even with your new audiences who don’t know the backstory. 

Brand loyalty works both ways. Nobody wants to see a business turn their back on the people that took a risk on them when they were first starting out. And unfortunately for brands, those early adopters who were your biggest champions (as well as potentially initial investors too), can use the same platforms that built you up, to tear you down, if you don’t take them on the journey with you.

In this day and age, with the sheer amount of consumer data and multiple marketing channels available to brands, it’s possible to run several targeted campaigns simultaneously, so you can tell each audience group the story they want to hear in the way they want to hear it. 

At a basic level, this means you can promote your green values and sustainability progress to your core eco audience, whilst running a benefits-driven campaign to wider market demographics that care more about what your product can do for them than the planet. 

And doing so doesn’t even have to be expensive. The more targeted your message, the greater your conversion – which means you can achieve a higher ROI with a smaller budget.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the way most brands, or even agencies, think about their strategy. 

Without access to detailed audience insights, or the expertise to roll these into multi-level, multi-demographic, micro targeted campaigns, they approach their communications with one blanket message for all, based on the mistaken assumption that the goodwill and support from their core eco audience will extend to helping them break into the mainstream market, even if they make missteps along the way. 

And we’ve seen all too often that this simply isn’t the case.

Without a microtargeting approach, brands try to “play it safe” with campaigns aimed at a more mainstream audience, which they believe are unlikely to offend their eco early adopters. But often, these are so safe that they don’t achieve cut through, or they miss the ethical mark and lead to a backlash. 

With the aim of expanding reach and leveraging social proof to demonstrate credibility, brands often partner with macro influencers, recruit celebrity ambassadors or even take investment from mainstream funds, to expand their market appeal and get their message in front of eyes that (they believe) they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to reach.

In 2021, Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams faced criticism for taking on the role of fast fashion giant H&M’s ‘global sustainability ambassador’, to front their campaign to use only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030. 

Activists and sustainability experts publicly called out the brand for going down the ‘celebrity ambassador’ route instead of collaborating with sustainability experts, and used this to double down on accusations of greenwashing. It wasn’t long before the Twitter storm escalated to include accusations of low paid and unsafe labour in their supply chain too.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t reserved for the big brands with celebrity budgets either. Collaboration with any influencer opens your brand up to risk by association. 

Even the most supportive early eco adopters can be put off when there’s a values mismatch in your collaborations. 

When you work with an influencer, you’re essentially endorsing them as much as they’re endorsing you – which means you’re endorsing their past work, the brands they’ve supported, and any skeletons they may be hiding in the cupboard. 

With the right risk assessments, you can anticipate and mitigate certain risks before you publicly launch a campaign. But a strategic communications agency should also be able to assess whether an influencer campaign is the right way to achieve your bigger objectives of making it in the mainstream market in the first place.

While an influencer with an engaged mainstream audience can bring you more followers and subscribers, these are all vanity metrics until there is behaviour change from their audience. And real, tangible, behaviour change ROI takes time – short term collaborations alone don’t cut it when your aim is to break through and establish traction in new markets. 

Data from YouGov shows that the most trustworthy and influential sources are academics, friends & family, and broadcast media when it comes to actually changing behaviour. 


With proper demographic understanding and targeting, and a more long-term view, brands could avoid risk and make more impact by harnessing thought leaders, pushing their PR messages into the mainstream media, and leveraging user-generated social content to create their own ambassadors from their most engaged audiences. 

And if bringing in macro influencers is the right way to go as part of your strategy, you can leverage a multi-channel, multi-targeted campaign to engage your early adopters with a collaborative pre-launch approach. 

Giving them first access to campaigns before they go live to the public helps them feel included and supportive, and gives you early access to (and ability to prevent) any potential backlash you may not have seen coming.

As a full-scale, audience-first agency with extensive crisis expertise and over a decade of experience taking sustainability focused startups to the mainstream market, we can help you navigate the complexities of managing multiple audiences, investors and stakeholders as you scale and grow.

As crisis PR and critical communications experts, we can risk assess your strategy and campaigns, identify opportunities and perform due diligence on your potential collaborators. And if something unforeseen does happen, you can sleep soundly at night knowing that we’re on hand to walk you through it and keep your reputation protected.

By taking an audience-first approach and analysing multiple sources of demographic and psychographic intelligence, we can tell you who is most likely to engage with you, what they want to hear, and how they like to be spoken to. Thanks to our strategic expertise and in-house creative team, we can deliver multi-channel, segmented, targeted campaigns that increase your ROI and perform against your bottom line.

If you’re ready to take your green brand mainstream, talk to us. We can help.