Once the exclusive domain of sustainability-focused startups, now it seems every brand is getting on the wagon to fight for a cause. And what a good thing that is.
Consumers don't engage much with companies, they buy brands. So when the brands they love stand for causes, it helps bring their customers to the cause and new customers to their brand. Good for business, good for the world. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, quite a lot. For every brand that meets its lofty goals, it seems there is one that shoots an own goal. So how can your brand be a winner in a world that is increasingly suspicious of greenwash and sophisticated in spotting a fraud?
How brand action can miss the mark
Even big brands can miss the mark.
Just a few weeks back, Persil's 'Dirt is good' ad was pulled in the UK for being misleading. The television advert said Persil was "kinder to our planet", and featured children picking up litter on a beach. According to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) the basis of the advert's claim wasn't clear enough.
The complaint was raised by a viewer to the ASA, a common trend we see recently: citizens are increasingly calling companies out if there is slight suspicion of greenwashing. In fact, in recent years, at least 6 countries have introduced some sort of regulation on climate related claims, with two more in the process of doing so. In the past five years, green fines and court cases have doubled globally, with half of the cases in the U.S, and countless headlines exposing companies' flawed green credentials, net zero claims, and shaky eco-conscious promises.
Criticism may lead to “green-hushing" – but walking the talk can help avoid it
Greenwashing is not the only problem. Increased scrutiny on climate related brand promises, lack of confidence on credibly addressing pressing issues, and the evolving scientific and international landscape result in the fact that to date, 25% of companies globally would rather go dark after going green.
'Green-hushing', as it is called, is a worrying trend among businesses, who'd rather hide what they are doing on climate (even if it is science-led and of integrity) than expose themselves to criticism. And criticism, not surprisingly, is often directed towards those who are at least doing something. Talking about it in a misleading way is of course not the way to go, but, one would ask: what about calling out the laggards? Or the ones who choose denial or worse, inaction – the biggest threat to humanity in our efforts to address climate change.
The good news is that there are plenty of brand campaigns that leave a good taste in the mouth, showing that brands who do it right have little to fear.
Globally, Ben & Jerry's has a long history of speaking up on the need for climate action. In the U.S, Seventh Generation has been a long-term corporate activist for companies to #comeclean on the toxic ingredients in everyday cleaning products. While, in Australia, beer brand VB's Solar Exchange does a great job of encouraging beer lovers to put solar on their roofs by paying them to do so in beer.
So what works so well for each of them? In a word, credibility.
Simply said, they walk the walk. Ben & Jerry's and Seventh Generation are Unilever brands and the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan helps set the standard for what a sustainability strategy should look like. On top of this, Ben & Jerry's has its own house in order around climate change, while Seventh Generation makes low toxin cleaning products. And VB? They went 100% renewable energy in their operations before asking their customers to do so too.
You may start to notice another defining factor here too: relevance. There's a simple logic in an ice cream brand fighting to keep the climate cool, and a low toxin cleaning brand demanding its high tox competitors reveal their nasty little secrets. As for beer fighting for renewables? Let's just say, not everything in this world makes simple sense. But it works.
How brands can win in this brave new world
First, choose your cause. As we've seen, the two magic ingredients are credibility and relevance. A great place to start is your company's sustainability strategy. If an issue has been prioritised there (just look up your materiality assessment or annual impact report), chances are that something has been done about it, and that gives you a good platform to begin from.
Of course, you will need to go further than corporate action too - your brand needs to look at its own impacts as well. Simply put, you can't go planting trees if your biggest sin is single use plastic. So, look at where your brand has a right to play, then choose the issue that will resonate most with your consumers. Be consistent in your actions and messaging. You might argue that consumers need excitement, thrill and constant renewal. It's true, but it's not about picking a new cause for every brand campaign. When the cause you champion stays with your brand in the long term, the way your brand interacts with consumers can constantly evolve. Take the example of Dove: they have been steadfastly championing true and diverse beauty for years, but the way they engage with their target group is fresh, and adapted to stay relevant along the way.
Next, it pays to partner up. Where there's a cause, there's an NGO or ten working hard to do something about it. And no matter how much Googling you do, you'll never know as much about the cause, and how to genuinely address it, as they do. The right partner will help you understand the nuances of the issue, get your tone right, and spread your message. Which is basically what campaigning is about.
They can also help you focus on the change you want to see happen.
This is our third tip: change is hard to do, so choose your issue wisely. Is your brand's role in the cause to get customers to sign a petition or create people power to pick up plastic pollution? Perhaps the answer is to get them to help fund a new, improved version of your product? Or listen to a podcast teaching people about their mental health? Knowing the change you seek to make and why is essential to success.
Finally, you need to tell your story well. The big rule here is to stand for the cause, not your brand's role in it. Too often we find ourselves failing to see eye to eye with our clients because our marketing briefs are all about brand awareness, and very little about actual impact.
Yes, brand awareness matters. We understand that brands seek a business benefit – and will keep investing in good causes if they get one – but that can't be the guiding goal. It may seem counterintuitive to marketing teams that if you focus on impact you will earn brand love, but that's the truth.
Look at Patagonia (yes, we had to mention them eventually). Does anyone for a moment think that in all their years of campaigning they were secretly doing it for brand uplift? No, they do it because they believe in it. And that drives the kind of brand love you just can't buy with TARPs (Target Audience Rating Point).
So, are you ready to dive in? Yes, the waters can be choppy but, with good foundations, you'll be freestyling in no time. Just remember: be credible, aim for real change, consider partnering up, and stand for the cause, not your role in it.
And may this better world be your oyster.