The role of the marketer is evolving at pace. In recent decades, the trade has undergone a radical digital transformation and evolved from a one-way broadcast to a conversation: on top of their regular campaign cadence, today’s marketers are communicating with customers and responding to events in real-time on social media. Marketers are also weathering diminishing customer trust with messaging overhauls and influencer collaborations. And, of course, they’re no longer expected to simply sell products – the rise of purpose-led marketing means alignment with social values is fundamental to a successful customer journey.

Today, a new shift is once again reshaping the job: the shift towards sustainability communications.

Sustainability is the new digital

In a recent conversation with Sarah Shilling, CMO at UNLIMITED Group, she highlighted the importance of marketing’s new remit: “Sustainability communications are no longer a hygiene factor, but a priority factor. Many customers now look for sustainability as one of the priority filters to purchase, often over price.”

With 79% of consumers changing purchase preference based on products’ social or environmental impact, marketers are racing to capitalise with sustainability messaging. Take Sainsbury’s, which recently retired its longstanding ‘Live Well for Less’ slogan in favour of the sustainability-focused ‘Helping Everyone Eat Better’. However, as Sarah Shilling explains, the opportunity is not without risk: “Sustainability is unforgiving. More so than price, delivery and quality. If you get your sustainability messages wrong or your promises are lies, then it’s a long road to try and claw that back.”

The result is that today’s marketers bear the burden of a significant new responsibility. They are increasingly expected to be au fait with life-cycle assessments, to know the difference between ‘cradle to gate’ and ‘cradle to grave’ and to tell PET from rPET.

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Sustainability communications tips for today’s marketers

For those feeling burdened by these new demands and wary of falling into the greenwashing trap, here are a few practical considerations:

  • Build your messaging on facts and proof: It might be tempting to ‘polish’ the story of your environmental impact with exaggerated claims or even unofficial ‘green’ logos on your packaging. Don’t do it. Playing fast and loose with the facts does everyone a disservice and with regulators upping the ante, you’re increasingly likely to pay the price for it. To make sure your messaging is fact-based and evidenced, you’ll need to connect with your sustainability team to understand the reality of your supply chain impact.
  • Focus on where you can make the biggest difference: take a step back from what’s trending in the headlines and focus on the most relevant issues for your business. If you want to talk about how you’re lowering your carbon emissions by changing your packaging, that’s great – but be clear whether this accounts for 5% or 40% of your product’s total footprint.
  • Don’t wait for perfection: Brand marketers are used to crafting perfectly optimised creative campaigns. Naturally, they might be reluctant to bring attention to an imperfect supply chain. But don’t wait for perfection: it’s important to communicate your progress. To be a climate leader, you need to set an example that others can follow, and that means communicating your journey with humility. As Milkadamia CMO, Christina Downey warns, “Customers are increasingly dissatisfied with insincerity, virtue signalling and posturing. Imperfection is OK, just be transparent about it.”

Brave new metrics?

We’re currently witnessing a paradigm shift in the way corporate success is measured, as boardrooms increasingly adopt a triple bottom line of environmental, social and financial progress. ISS ESG recently reported that a fifth of businesses now link executive pay to environmental or social metrics – double the number in 2018. Nike and Chipotle Mexican Grill have both committed to this approach publicly in recent weeks. It’s a trend that Sarah Shilling believes is bringing new meaning to the title of CEO: “Chief Emissions Officer”. 

Of course, we can expect bumps in the road. I was saddened to see Danone’s purpose-driven CEO forced out by shareholder pressure last month: a short-termist move that I believe will damage shareholder value in the long term. But ShareAction’s Tesco victory showed that shareholders can also accelerate progress.

We know that sustainability-linked consumer products can grow nearly six times faster than others. But whilst there are short-term gains to be had from sustainability-led marketing, measuring success purely on immediate revenue would be a disservice. To any CEOs reading this who still measure marketing success on sales alone, my question is whether you’re realising marketing’s potential to future-proof your business.

Marketers must meet our generation’s greatest challenge

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks,” said Jeff Hammerbacher famously, after leaving his position as one of Facebook’s first 100 employees.

Today, marketers looking for a legacy beyond campaign click rates are embracing the opportunity to communicate on impact. The climate crisis is the singular biggest global challenge facing our generation. As expert cognitive influencers, marketers have a unique and crucial part to play in driving behaviour change as well as shaping and implementing effective corporate sustainability strategies. On a recent webinar, I heard ITV’s CMO Jane Stiller describe how purpose-driven marketing has the potential to steer policy, rather than simply communicate it: “When you put a line in the sand and publicly communicate it, it gives impetus and expectation for the brand to live up to it.”

For any marketers that haven’t started, it’s time to give sustainability your focus. And for the unconvinced – for those that believe that making progress on environmental impact is a job for your Sustainability team alone – I’ll leave you with a quote from Robert Swan, OBE: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”