" ` Boring conversations with dangerous implications | Haines McGregor

Why brands must refresh their approach to sustainability

There is a famous quote from Michel de Montaigne, a french renaissance philosopher, who observed that “there is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.”

So is there a conversation more boring than the subject of ‘sustainability’ is right now? This sounds controversial. But it’s not. It’s critically important to consider. Climate change, and the urgent need to develop more sustainable means of living, is one of the great challenges of our lifetime. 

We have all heard the stats. Twenty of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last twenty-two years. Half of all amphibians are at risk of extinction due to climate change. Wildfires are proliferating and hurricanes are reaching new extremes. 

We all want to make a difference. According to a report from Gartner, over 73% of UK consumers want to be more sustainable in 2021. This increased desire from consumers is in turn moving brands and businesses to action, with the same report finding that 96% of businesses said they are feeling increasing pressure to become more sustainable.

Brands and consumers all agree on the importance of sustainability. The problem is that when you all agree, things can become boring. Boring things don’t cut through – and they don’t change behaviour. 

Safety and similarity 

We are all now quite familiar with shared global priorities. COVID-19 has stolen the spotlight from other crises, vacuuming attention and investment as the world adapted to the ‘new normal’. It also illustrated how many brands do not know how to communicate or engage with our shared global issues.

The immediate response to the first lockdown, for many brands, was to communicate in exactly the same way. Mark Ritson pointed to brands ranging from Honda to Mirosoft to Mastercard, all dropping their pre-pandemic brand strategies to instead offer plinky platitudes such as ‘we are here for you’ or ‘we are all in this together’, delivered over equally plinky piano music.   

As people, it is natural to seek safety in numbers when faced with a crisis. But for brands, there is no safety in sameness. Looking back now, can you remember any of these giant budget ads in any great detail?

COVID-19 illustrated that, when faced with crisis, brands can panic. And in doing so inadvertently begin to sound and look like their competitors. And, over a longer period of time, we are witnessing the same thing happen with brands in response to sustainability. 

Brands know that sustainability is important to consumers. But in their efforts to reflect this importance, they often opt for cliches of the genre (I don’t want to see another brand logo wrapped in grass anymore than another sombre shot of an empty stadium), which only serve to lose distinctiveness in the minds of consumers. 

Creating urgency from agreement

COVID-19 made us hyper aware of all our actions as individuals. The last year has illustrated how even the smallest individual actions can have much broader consequences. Equally it has shown how powerful collective action is. 

Throughout the waves of pandemic, as we moved in and out of lockdown, we could clearly measure the cumulative impact of our individual actions. Wearing masks and adhering to social distancing had a quantifiable impact on easing the burden on health services. And now we are beginning to see similar patterns as lockdown lifts following the initial vaccine rollout. 

We have all lived through a generational event in which individual actions, made en masse, were able to create powerful and necessary change. Life saving change. 

This is an important factor that is now driving the rise of individual sustainability among consumers. We have all experienced the immense impact individuals can have. We understand the importance of acting now. And we know that the stakes couldn’t be higher. 

COVID has accelerated the rise of individual sustainability in other ways also. After a year at home, consumers are now generally much more conscious of the amount of daily waste that filters through our lives. This growing consciousness is pushing consumers to make increasingly sustainable purchases – most notably in avoiding single use plastic. 

COVID has also underlined an important human truth: content and communication must play into human needs to be effective. The UK government adopted slogans like ‘hands, face, space’ – simple mantras which quickly and clearly encourage people to change their behaviour. As the legendary behavioural scientist Richard Thaler once said, “if you want to encourage someone to do something, make it easy.”

And some ‘easy’ practical changes are imminent. P&G has listed its brands on TerraCycle’s Loop – and now offers refillable bottles that use 60% less plastic across several of its most popular shampoo brands in the UK. Waitrose & Partners announced in January that its ‘Unpacked’ offering will be rolled out to extra stores following good consumer engagement in trials. 

On the other end of the scale, moving away from practical developments to broader brand building exercises, Volvo has recently shown how a brand can drive home the importance of sustainability. In its most recent ad spot, the brand draws on its own history of overcoming safety challenges and cleverly contrasts it with the global ‘safety’ challenge of sustainability. 

The spot is able to deliver powerful cut through because it visually demonstrates how climate change is cutting through Volvo’s agenda to become the primary ‘safety’ concern. 

Breaking the boring

To Michel de Montaigne, the idea that agreement was boring spoke to the notion that people often look for validation rather than critical challenge – and that greater understanding often comes from seeking out differing ideas and expanding your perspective.  

Brands shouldn’t be scared to embrace new ideas and start new conversations around sustainability. 

Companies have a role to play in ensuring their global practices are as green as possible. But don’t confuse that with the role brands need to play – which is in ensuring that the conversation around sustainability remains engaging, interesting and urgent. 

This means thinking about how your brand can navigate the specific cultural currents around environmentalism and leverage changing behaviours with communication that drives consumer action. Sustainability isn’t boring – but brands who sound and act the same are. 

Want to learn more?

At Haines McGregor, we are exploring how recent global shifts and changing consumer behaviour is changing the relationship between sustainability and brands. If you work for an FMCG brand, you can see the recording of our Sustainability webinar, which explores the sustainability trends shaping the sector.