Organisations are being urged to act now on their sustainability agendas: regulators, investors and consumers are pushing the topic to the top of the boardroom agenda.
In a Google survey, 82% of shoppers said that sustainability is more top of mind now than it was before the pandemic.1 Unsurprisingly, we see this shift in thinking reflected in online behaviours — for topics like sustainability and climate change, search interest in the U.K. is up more than 60% since 2018.
However, in our conversations with marketers, we frequently see tension between the desire to support the sustainability agenda and the need to deliver more immediate, marketing-led growth for their organisations. Some talk about a “say-do” gap between what consumers claim to want and what they actually spend their money on — something we found evidence of in fashion-related purchase decisions in a Google study from 2020.
Despite this, the role of the CMO can be – and should be – central to sustainability strategy, and it goes much further than delivering communications on the topic. We spoke to industry leaders about how they view the role of marketing in sustainability: the progress made, challenges shared, and work still to be done. Here are some of their insights.
1) Consumer “pull” alone should not drive strategy
In many industries, the relationship between sustainability and purchase decisions is complex. In financial services, for example, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues are a critical board-level discussion and significant efforts are being made to increase sustainability. However, search trends suggest it is not yet informing the product choices of many people thinking about the category.
For example, interest in “cheap insurance” remains high, while “green insurance” is still struggling to make a dent in the consumer consciousness as far as search interest is concerned.
“There is a disconnect between what consumers understand and our brand’s sustainability objectives,” says James O’Keefe, commercial director at Legal & General. “25% have never even heard of net zero, while 3 in 10 can’t explain or don’t understand the connection with their pension pots.”
If we can’t expect consumers to demand the change at the pace we need it to happen, then marketers need to work to drive the demand.
This is indicative of a wider dilemma for the CMO: how do you align long-term corporate objectives on sustainability with the mid- or short-term requirement to sell products? Here, marketers have a vital role to play in introducing sustainability concepts and shifting consumer expectations, making it easier for people to see the value in sustainable purchase decisions. This could involve showing how to solve everyday problems with sustainable choices, weaving sustainability into an existing value proposition, or demonstrating the near-term rewards of their actions.
For example, Google is helping consumers make more sustainable shopping choices easier by narrowing search results in the Shopping tab. It will show more cost-effective and sustainable options for shoppers. Google is also bringing carbon emissions information to Google Flights.
As O’Keefe says: “If we can’t expect consumers to demand the change at the pace we need it to happen, then marketers need to work to create the change and drive the demand.”
2) Connect sustainability with category entry points
One of the key functions of marketing is to build a mental association between a brand and “category entry points” — the moment when someone first thinks about their product. A classic example was the association built by “have a break – have a KitKat”.
“The role of the marketer is to consider category entry points where sustainability can align to product benefits and over time become a virtue consumers look for,” says Peter Field, an expert in advertising effectiveness. “It’s no good producing a sustainable chocolate bar that doesn’t taste good.” Sustainability credentials need to both be credible and reinforce a brand’s core positioning.
Mark Evans, managing director, Marketing & Digital, at Direct Line Group, agrees. “It is fundamental that marketers find a link between sustainability and category entry points, or create that link,” he says. “This will allow for a board-level conversation that can connect sustainability strategy and marketing effectiveness.”
The role of the marketer is to consider category entry points where sustainability can align to product benefits and become a virtue consumers look for.
3) Measure the wider positive impact of your sustainability agenda
The sustainability agenda exposes marketers to a much wider range of stakeholders than their end consumers.
Sustainability propositions can be incredibly effective for B2B campaigns and, perhaps even more importantly, they have a significant impact on employee hiring, retention, and engagement.
“Being a certified B Corp and having sustainability and purpose core to the company’s values has been a big driver in employee engagement,” says Beatriz Montoya, chief operating officer at Simply Business. “It’s particularly important when hiring in areas where skills are in short supply, as many of us are experiencing in the current market.
“It’s up to marketers to create a strong employee value proposition as well as doing what’s right for customers.”
What you do and achieve internally has an impact externally — and when you build a strong team around your sustainability agenda, it becomes easier to build this value into your wider marketing strategy in an authentic way.
With everyone from potential employees to consumers judging brands on their sustainability credentials, success increasingly rests on the CMO’s ability to link product and purpose in an authentic and credible way.
4) Leverage the power of partnerships
Marketers can have a critical role in building partnerships, both with industry bodies to set shared ambitions and standards and with other businesses that can help deliver system change. Margaret Jobling, chief marketing officer at NatWest Group, is a strong advocate for this approach.
“We’ve got to team up with other businesses to see how we can make a difference, whether that’s within our own category or across categories,” says Jobling.
She highlights the example of the UK’s housing stock, where around 90% of houses are inefficient: “It’s an infrastructure problem, it’s a finance problem, it’s a consumer education problem. We need to come together to find solutions.”
The approach she is driving at NatWest Group is to move beyond theory and get practical, with tools like carbon trackers for their retail customers, sustainability toolkits for their business customers, and an emphasis on green mortgages with preferential interest rates.
“Brands play a critical role in helping drive behaviour change within the business — and, more importantly, with customers.”
Running a successful business while charting a path to sustainability comes with its challenges, but it’s something Google is committed to supporting. It’s why we’re partnering with net zero certification group Planet Mark on a training programme to help small businesses understand, track, and reduce their carbon emissions.
This is one of many initiatives being developed across Google to support organisations, alongside our work to drive our own sustainable practices and our goal to help one billion people make more sustainable choices by 2022 through our core products. We all know rapid progress is critical, and difficult decisions have to be made. We aim to continue to provide data and insights — and facilitate the conversations — to make these essential choices possible.