How a new dynamic between consumers and brands will catalyse change

Sensemaking / How a new dynamic between consumers and brands will catalyse change

Today, saying the right thing isn't enough to convince consumers about a brand's commitment to sustainability. Emily Pacey finds out how leading companies are building their reputations through actions, and not just words.

By Anna Simpson / 26 Nov 2012

Today, saying the right thing isn’t enough to convince consumers about a brand’s commitment to sustainability. Emily Pacey finds out how leading companies are building their reputations through actions, and not just words.

Back in the day, brands offered themselves as a mark of style and stamp of quality on products bought to last, from kitchenware to trench coats to watches. Then, with the rise of corporate social responsibility, they sought to realign themselves with emerging ideals. In 2002, the global banking group HSBC launched an advertising campaign describing itself as ‘local’. In 2003, fast food giant McDonald’s introduced a line of salads with low fat dressings, alongside the staple burger and fries.

Today, saying the right thing, with the odd action to back it up, isn’t enough. The rise of peer-to-peer review sites, from TripAdvisor to Facebook, means that brands no longer have the last word about their character. If they want a lasting reputation, they’ll have to merit it. Again and again.

Social media gives non-profit campaigns  and consumers the clout to stand up to massive multinationals, challenging them as never before. Take Greenpeace’s ‘Give the Orangutan a break’ campaign, which in 2010 went viral on sites like YouTube, asking Nestlé to stop using palm oil from ‘trashed rainforests’. “You’ll never guess what”, says Greenpeace’s site now: “Nestlé has only gone and agreed to our campaign demands! And you’ve made this possible.”

This shift in power means brands will have to change, engaging consumers in a much more dynamic conversation, based on shared values. It’s time for “Brands 2.0”, says Sally Uren, Forum for the Future’s Deputy Chief Executive. Uren anticipates a new generation of brand behaviour, in which they’ll build their reputation, not through talk, but through action. They’ll ‘be’ the change they want others to talk about. And, importantly, they’ll enable others to be that change, too. So, instead of simply describing themselves as local and healthy, they’ll be the ones empowering a community to run their own bank, or the ones offering courses in kitchen skills based on fresh, seasonal produce.

Take the US-based caterer Sodexo, which runs hundreds of American hospital, university, corporate and government canteens. In 2011, it launched a campaign to reduce meat consumption called Meatless Monday, which seems to have taken on a life of its own. With its snappy tagline, the Meatless Monday initiative is what Lucy Shea, Chief Executive of sustainability communications company Futerra, calls a campaign “with sizzle”: the sort people want to be part of and tell their friends about. 

Crucially, Meatless Monday has attracted the attention of the media, which has acted as a pollinator for the idea. The Washington Post exhorted readers to “adopt the Meatless Monday routine as a relaxed and fun way to introduce vegetarian meals to your family”. And according to, Meatless Monday is now used as “a banner phrase for a war against excessive meat consumption”.

WWF-UK’s Head of Business and Industry, Dax Lovegrove, describes the Meatless Monday campaign as “a step-change in the journey to engaging consumers in a green agenda”.

Arguably, what made Meatless Monday so successful is that it didn’t just emulate existing consumer expectations: it set a new aspiration. And not just for something they could buy and own, but for something they could do. Another component of its success was that it didn’t just ask one consumer to change their behaviour: it could have said, ‘Give up meat for one day a week’. But instead, its message was ‘Join our Monday thing’ – thereby creating a movement.

The promise of these (still fairly rare) sparks of brand genius is great. Imagine what might be possible if more marketing and communications agencies applied their talents to sustainability! Some young companies are already adding a touch of sass to low-cost, low-carbon and traditionally low-status activities such as staycationing and sharing lifts: think Airbnb, Zipcar

“The work we see in this field has exploded”, says Shea. “We feel that we are on a cusp: that brand teams are now seeing how sustainability can drive consumer loyalty. It actually makes the hairs stand on my arm when you see how fast this is happening.”

In May, Futerra produced Planet Brands, a ‘call to action’ for 100 of what Futerra identified as the brands best-placed to change our behaviour. “Big brands have the dream attributes you need to run a behaviour-change campaign”, says Shea. “They have frequency and status, they are everywhere, they are the makers of manners and we expect them to change our behaviour.”

Some brands already see themselves as leaders in social change. One much-vaunted campaign came from the Proctor & Gamble-owned washing brand Ariel. In 2006, it launched what Giles Gibbons of Good Business calls the “best ever” piece of behaviour-change marketing. Ariel’s ‘Turn to 30’ advertising campaign let customers know that they could wash whites at just 30 degrees, saving energy. Gibbons praises the fact that the adverts communicated on two levels: “First, they talked about the power of Ariel’s product to wash clothes whiter, which totally supports their positioning of having the best formulation of washing powder. Second they communicated that Ariel is a good business that helps people to be aware that they can lower the temperature that they wash at. And that is genius – every marketing director afterwards said to their agencies, ‘I want an Ariel’.”

The public is also looking for a greater commitment to sustainability from brands. According to the 2011 Meaningful Brands Index, published by Havas Media, 85% of 50,000 global respondents said they expected companies to become “actively involved in solving important environmental and social issues” – an increase of 15% from 2010. Figures published in The Co-operative Bank’s Ethical Consumerism Report 2011 indicate that at least a small portion of those 85% are putting their money where their mouth is. The Report found that in the UK, sales of ethical goods and services rose by 9% in 2010, despite the economic downturn. It seems plausible that ‘ethical’ brands certified by organisations like the Soil Association, Fairtrade, the Rainforest Alliance and MSC, are taking market share from the mainstream.

But, says Forum’s Uren, in these straitened times, it’s the mainstream that will really make the difference. “Consumers may want change, but they don’t always want to pay for it, and nor should they have to”, she argues. “Attaching an unnecessary premium to green has put the mainstream consumer off, whereas the economies of scale that accrue from large-scale manufacturing and supply chain eco-efficiencies should be passed to the consumer.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean under-valuing resources. In the past year, Good Business worked with Fiat on its eco:Drive computer application, which helps people to save money and reduce emissions by driving more efficiently. “They managed to reduce emissions by about 12%”, says Gibbons, “but Fiat realised that to go further it would need to get other organisations on board.” The automotive brand has now set up a forum, bringing together traffic management authorities, traffic charities, petrol companies and the RAC, to educate drivers about fuel-saving techniques. It’s a smart move: by playing the role of teacher, Fiat builds trust among its consumers, as well as saving them money.

Of course, consumers aren’t always driven by good old money-saving logic: they’re also driven by desire. And fostering this is what brands do best. As Lovegrove says, “If Nike can make us fall in love with trainers, maybe they can make us fall in love with nature.” Indeed. Lovegrove believes that our disposable culture is going into reverse, soon to be replaced by a cool, high-tech, low-consumption ethic. Remember Patagonia’s ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign? The savvy brand reversed the logic of advertising, urging consumers to think twice before investing in even a “60% recycled [and] exceptionally durable” item of clothing.

In five to 10 years, people could be producers as much as consumers

Sounds far-out – but Patagonia may only be the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to reverse consumption. Uren believes that in as little as five to 10 years, people could easily be producers as much as they are consumers. Some will be hacking their own goods, with the aid of trusty tools from programmable materials to 3D-printers. Others will be making the most of resources to hand: spare rooms, old clothes, leftover food – you name it.

Evolution requires fresh ideas, and so those companies that work with their audience, listening to them and welcoming their creativity, will have an edge. Former Head of Interbrand, Rita Clifton, observes that the “most enlightened companies” are using consumer feedback to co-create goods and services. There are Lego’s Mindstorms and DesignByMe kits, which allow users to create their own designs and robotic toys. Prizes are awarded to the most creative and interactive, raising the profile of both individual consumers and the brand. In the same vein, Nike launched a shoe design app for customers, with the option to use more sustainable materials – offering the chance to learn about innovative new products, as well as a creative platform. And Proctor & Gamble has come up with successful designs for face cream, toothbrushes and more by involving consumers in its R&D processes.

Perhaps the leading brands of the future will behave much like a good party host, bringing people together, creating conversations, and letting new catch-phrases and cultures bubble up through the fun. We’re entering a new age of decentralised creativity – the “third industrial revolution” to quote Jeremy Rifkin. Brands could help this powerful collective to shift things in the right direction. The question is, are they listening?  

Emily Pacey is a freelance journalist specialising in design. Additional material by Anna Simpson.

Photos: Cyberstock/Alamy, istock/thinkstock

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