The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report, news on which has broken today - 8th October - makes for sobering reading. 'Sobering' is the first word we might reach for in explaining the impact of something that triggers a reappraisal of our understanding of the world - something with unsettling consequences.
Except that this report is not sobering. It is deeply, deeply troubling. The news is that stabilising global warming at 1.5 will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
It’s hard not to turn away from the TV screens and news apps in horror, and wish to reside in seemingly safe ignorance just a little longer. This is an entirely natural human response.
And this is the response that many of us – and we are each of us consumers, after all – will take.
But it is incumbent upon those of us who have any influence over how companies operate, and the products and services they create and deliver, not to turn away.
To help with this, we need to find positive ways of framing our endeavour in the face of near-impossible gloom. It starts today, and it starts with all of us. It starts with an understanding of the bigger picture goals alongside a recognition that lots of small changes will add up to a big difference. This is one of the key ways we can find hope in the face of great anxiety.
And we can find hope in the fact that the report comes at an important time – with the opportunity to influence an annual global climate change meeting due to be held in Poland in December. Further, in September it was announced that this meeting will start a day earlier than planned to allow more work to be done.
Change can be effected at three primary levels – consumers, government and corporations. There is a complex inter-relationship between these three levels. And it is clear that it is crucial for change to happen at each level for us to have the hope we need to push on with protecting our world.
This is not the place to suggest what we should do as consumers, or what government should do.
But we can frame thinking around how we as marketing specialists can partner with corporates to drive their sustainability agendas more effectively. With our expertise in consumer insight, and based on our experience working on sustainability briefs across sectors, we suggest several considerations:
Firstly, avoid turning consumers off. This is the starting point. If we scare them, there is the danger that they will disengage. We need to strike a fine balance between showing hope and the need for change. And our brands must remain relevant in order to be heard.
In this context, it’s important remembering here that many consumers will be facing significant day-to-day challenges in their lives (for example, struggling to stay afloat financially) and will not want to feel that the brands they trust and rely on have lost sight of those challenges in favour of what can feel like an abstract or longer-term focus.
Recognise where sustainability should be overt versus quietly baked into the product/service: In many cases sustainability is and should be simply part of the DNA of the product/service. It will be communicated at the appropriate level, but calling it out especially may have risks – for example, if the brand’s sustainability progress is patchy to date (e.g. good on product, not well resolved on packaging), or if it simply clouds positioning and messaging.
And if sustainability is built explicitly into the product/service, determine at what level, and how explicitly. For example, it could be the fundamental inspiration for a new proposition and shape thinking on its positioning space, but not be the overt reason to believe. This is the route we have found it appropriate to take in laundry and automotive briefs, for example, where leading on sustainability credentials risked raising important barriers over product performance.
In recent projects, we have found a mix of in-depth engagement with R&D functions, cultural insight and creative consumer research to be an effective route to identifying finely-honed routes making greener products feel viable to consumers who were not calling out for this development (and who may even question the fit of greener products with their needs).
Where sustainability is a central component of the proposition, find the lever to make it desirable: This is where we need to find ways to fuse consumer needs, drivers and trends with functional routes to sustainability. We can make sustainability innovations compelling, tapping into the desires of consumers to feel good in their choices day to day, or – for example - to feel ‘in the know’ in making sophisticated choices (highly appropriate in some categories).
And finally, a more structural consideration:
Sustainability briefs can and should be special-focus projects. But every single innovation brief should have a sustainability lens. This will of course take a cultural shift in many businesses. Sustainability should not necessarily be programmed into ideation programs at the outset (indeed, often not), at the risk of constraining and channelling ideation away from the opportunity area in question. But it must come in at some point in the process, as appropriate to the brief.
This needs to be the way of the world from now on. Join us in thinking about the challenge and the opportunity – comments are welcome.