Creativebrief CEO, Charlie Carpenter speaks with a panel of experts on whether marketers and their agencies feel sufficiently equipped to take a leading role in the most pressing issue of our time.

As David Attenborough recently explained, saving our planet is now a communications challenge. To explore what is the role of marketing is in driving the sustainability agenda, Creativebrief CEO, Charlie Carpenter was joined by Tag’s Divisional Director Tamara Lover alongside Fikerte Woldegiorgis, Marketing Director Foods UK and Ireland at Unilever, Peter Zillig, Marketing Director at Ford of Europe and Karen Fraser MBE, Co-Founder at Weiser Works, to discuss marketing’s role in the sustainability agenda.

To watch the session click here, or continue reading for Creativebriefs full round up.

The panel considered whether the marketing function is suitably placed to drive the sustainability agenda and whether marketers and their agencies feel sufficiently equipped to take a leading role in the issue of the day. Creativebrief’s recent ‘The future for brands and sustainability and Tag’s ‘Know to Grow’ reports were used to fuel the discussion.

Despite the horrors of 2020, lockdown served as a period of reflection and forced the world to face up to the impact of global warming. First hand, the world has seen the benefits of a globally coordinated, environmentally conscious future economy and now is the time to capitalise on this. A series of recent dramatic weather events across the globe have personified climate change and the IPCC’s recently published report more emphatically links human activity to climate change; labelling the findings a code red for humanity. Accelerating the translation to a lower carbon economy is now more urgently imprinted on the minds of everyone from consumers, agencies to government. Now is the time for the marketing industry to step up and play its part.
The scale of the task at hand is vast and the topic is complex. No one is expected to have all the answers but now is the time to start taking steps toward change.

Marketing’s future function
There’s been a historic correlation between the marketing industry; the role of which is ultimately to drive growth; and emissions, which are by and large driven by growth. Yet, going forward sustainability will also serve to be a key driver of growth. Unilever’s Woldegiorgis explained: “The reality is that we can’t drive growth or business in an unhealthy climate. Sustainability is going to be a very key part of our strategy.” For brands like Unilever, sustainability is now sitting at the heart of the business model as the company has announced an ambitious plan to double growth whilst halving impact. Woldegiorgis stresses that sustainability should not be viewed as a reputation risk or a nice to have, it should be embedded into the workings of a business.

Marketing across all industries needs to embrace sustainability, even within those industries that have traditionally been more heavy polluters. Zillig underlined Ford’s commitment to sustainability and to electrifying its range. The auto industry is up against challenges when it comes to sustainability and therefore needs to show its commitment to contributing to a brighter future. Zillig explains that “it’s important not to use sustainability as a marketing tool. It’s a fundamental commitment to the business which marketing needs to harness. At Ford, it’s about earning the customers trust.”

The reality is that we can’t drive growth or business in an unhealthy climate. Sustainability is going to be a very key part of our strategy.

Fikerte Woldegiorgis, Marketing Director Foods UK and Ireland at Unilever
Beyond the auto industry, Ford’s Zillig believes that marketing has a wider function in creating a more sustainable future. He explains: “Marketing is uniquely positioned to help, as marketers we have tools that are critical to addressing the climate crisis; we can help change the way people feel or the way they think and ultimately the way they behave.” In pressured circumstances, creativity can thrive and marketers need to use the tools they have available to push the sustainability agenda to the forefront. A recent Kantar study found that companies that had a positive impact on society are growing at two and a half times the rate of those that didn’t. Consumers are holding brands accountable and are expecting more, meaning that doing the right thing is a key driver of growth.


Making greener choices more appealing
There are two key elements of marketing’s contribution that make Weiser Works’ Fraser feel optimistic about the future. She explains: “The first is happening already, in terms of the changes in the way that we’re producing ads”. Covid made everybody stop and reevaluate their production techniques. Creativebrief research showed that 76% of leaders changed their strategy during 2020 and with the help of companies like Tag, agencies have altered their approach to production. Fraser says that the second element is “the role marketing can play in making greener choices more exciting and more attractive to people – that’s where the greatest challenge is and what will have the greatest impact across all industries which marketing serves.”

Marketing is uniquely positioned to help, as marketers we have tools that are critical to addressing the climate crisis; we can help change the way people feel or the way they think and ultimately the way they behave.

There are ways that marketing activity can both generate financial return whilst also over time decreasing environmental impact. “One of the key reasons that sustainability is not as commonplace in the business world as we wish it were is because of the fact that sustainability and growth are usually seen as mutually exclusive,” explains Unilever’s Woldegiorgis. This viewpoint needs to be challenged. Unilever has seen first-hand that its brands more heavily invested actually grow faster. She explains that it’s easier than brands think to get involved as shoppers are leaning further into the space and brands that also lean in are meeting consumers where they are.

A tangible example of this is the way that Unilever brand, Hellman’s, has focused on tackling the issue of food waste. “Almost a third of food produced globally every year goes to waste; mind boggling given the fact that nearly 1BN people go hungry and the planetary impact is also incredible as food waste is the third biggest greenhouse gas emitter” explains Woldegiorgis. Unilever has chosen to focus on this issue in Hellman’s marketing to raise awareness and explain how shoppers can help. “We try to equip consumers with ideas that can help reduce food waste. Consumers like and respect it. They lean in because they want to help and contribute individually to a better future.” she says. Similarly at Ford, Zillig has seen greater consumer engagement following their commitment to electrification.

Practise in production
From a production perspective, Tag’s Lover explains that “oftentimes the sustainable option is also the most cost-effective” and the actual issue is that clients don’t know where to start. Lover suggests a method similar to ‘couch to 5K’ to give agencies a clear path that starts with measuring their current footprint and then suggesting simple ways to reduce. Small changes can have a big impact, Lover explains that “the number one contributor of emissions in the production process is the shoot, the travel”, something which can be easily reduced by ensuring only essential people are on set or by going local, even virtual. Switches aren’t also great for the environment but also for finances.


Bridging the gaps
The action gap between what companies say and what they do can harm consumer trust. Brands that have already made sustainability commitments are in a much stronger place than those that haven’t yet, but still, consumers will be watching closely to see if they deliver on these promises. Weiser Works’ Fraser thinks that in all areas of marketing, brands need to practise what they preach as consumers will question those that have strong messaging but then use harmful packaging or shoot ads in faraway places. At current, there’s also a gap between what brands are committed to and what they are able to deliver on. The next step is to work toward ensuring that brands have the right tools to meet their goals. Tags Lover adds that the brands that are the most serious about it are “moving to action quickly.” These brands make it a priority and think of sustainability in the planning stages, not at the last minute just before the execution.

Marketers are becoming increasingly more equipped to push forward the sustainable agenda, but still, there is a way to go, says Unilever’s Woldegiorgis. This is an extremely complex area that many individuals haven’t been trained in, without the knowledge, it’s hard to understand what promises of net-zero even mean. It’s not just about informing consumers, the industry must also be well informed. The onus is on clients, agencies and brands because to make things happen everyone must join forces. Collaborative organisations like AdNetZero are critical in aligning efforts across the industry and helpful in setting positive benchmarks that can be referred back to as a guideline.

In contrast, Ford’s Zillig believes “that marketers aren’t equipped to lead the charge, but nor should they be.” he goes on to explain, “marketers shouldn’t feel pressured to make this change alone, it needs to be systemic; across a whole company.” Ford created its first sustainability report over 20 years ago and Zillig emphasises that every area of the organisation operates with this agenda in mind as it’s the only way to make a meaningful, cohesive effort.


Fine-tuning tone
Creativebrief’s Carpenter notes that there’s been a real evolution in tone in the way the industry communicates around climate change. Notably from worthy, sombre ads to more joyous and humorous ones, which are in some ways more accessible to all. “A decade ago it seemed to be quite preachy, perhaps partly due to the realisation of the enormity of the problem.” says Woldegiorgis, “Now the knowledge is out there, We still have a role to play in education, but it’s not about sounding the alarm bells, we want to inspire consumers and help them define their role in reducing the climate crisis.” A feeling of partnership between brand and consumer rather than prior messaging which could feel like talking down.

The tone of messaging has to come down to the brand, “who you are and where you come from” says Weiser Works Fraser, “brands like Oatly and Quorn can be more fun and experimental than say a fossil fuel brand”. The panel agrees that while the delivery and tone of the message matters, ultimately, the message is what needs to be refined and placed at the heart of the communications.


To round off… Creativebrief’s Carpenter raises a statistic that paints a real picture of how instrumental the marketing industry is in driving the sustainable agenda; In the UK, annual carbon emissions produced by the industry amount to one million tons, yet, Audi’s 2015-17 campaign saw a level of incremental sales that lead to five million tons of carbon emission. For context, that’s the equivalent of 1.3 coal power stations running day and night for an entire year. If this is a statistic for just one brand, it represents just a fraction of what the true impact of the industry is.

Yet, the panel sees cause to be optimistic about the future for the industry. Marketing has the power to make real changes, in behaviour and in thinking, through the creative minds and progressive technology it possesses. Things we would have thought impossible a few years ago like using virtual sets are now a reality. And, across the industry organisations like Ad Net Zero show, there is a real priority on working to tackle this problem together. Marketers need to start by starting, there is real evidence of the passion to do better and now is the time for action.