Is sustainability still a hot-button for advertisers?
Half a century worth of captivating narratives?
Is it time to move on?
the underlying theories
In the previous chapters:
Why the reticence?
We explored why communications about sustainability have so far failed to cause any significant attitude change among consumers. Or worse: in many parts of the world we appear to have passed the tipping point beyond which the typical consumer has no bandwidth left for the ever more complex stream of science. During the course of any societal evolution, there is a moment when trend-setters will inspire more efficiently than campaigners will persuade, and it is important to recognize that moment.
When it comes to sustainability, this paper argues that we are well past this tipping point, and it is high time to change the way we engage the public on the issue.
the advertisers' viewpoint
From the beginning of the sustainability movement, communication has been guided by the simplistic assumption that “well-informed people will make the right decisions”. It could hardly have happened differently: the first people to address the public about the sustainability issue were academics, non-profits and governmental and non-governmental agencies. All agents that are disinclined to adopt a market-oriented approach, or even allowed to. Their communication budgets could not compete for the best talent. In fact, much of the early work was provided pro-bono by well-meaning advertising agencies. Little by little, corporations started introducing the subject of sustainability into their communications, but very tentatively and with stifling caveats. Even today, very few corporations have unleashed the full creative potential of their marketing departments in order to make sustainability into a brand-defining attribute. There are many reasons for this, as many advertising executives will tell you.
Cohn & Wolfe, a major global agency specialized in sustainability communications:
“It’s not always clear why communication is an afterthought for some brands, but we liken it to planning a huge party and forgetting to send the invitations. You’re doing the hard work – why not celebrate it? We’ve found that many brands are fearful of being accused of greenwashing, while others have a culture of greenmuting so they simply don’t think it’s appropriate to crow about the good work. There’s also concern that communication gives the competitors too much information and that by making sustainability goals public essentially hands over brand control to consumers and influencers who are active on social media channels. Mostly, though, we hear from our clients that they feel inadequate about their sustainability progress and fear being publically scrutinized for not doing enough fast enough.”
That pretty well summarises the issues that this chapter aims to address.
The most crippling reason seems to be public skepticism and anti-corporate activism, which effectively make it risky for a corporation to claim credit for any progress until it is beyond criticism in all areas.
It is easy to see the challenge of publicly releasing details of a company’s sustainability programme. In the era of globalised social media, it takes enormous resources to steer your message through a horde of commentators thriving on pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. And if you seek credibility by revealing any shred of innovative thinking, you have to be prepared for the possibility of failure, leading to a barrage of schadenfreude-derived comments in a few hundred languages.
Can corporations at least expect the professional media to bring some balance to the playing field?
(Thøgersen, 2006) “It is well documented that the mass media plays an important role in determining which issues receive high or low attention by the general public. However, not only does the media's assessment of what is newsworthy mean that green businesses will eventually lose the current of a rising issue attention cycle, but also its mere success means that stories framing green businesses in a negative light become newsworthy while positive stories lose their newsworthiness. Therefore, and despite a large and loyal customer base, many green companies now find themselves in a much more hostile environment than a decade ago”.
There is an even more fundamental question: in what other areas of their operations are companies expected to reveal step-by-step details of its operations to the general public?
The consensus is that sustainability should be allowed to impose itself through natural market forces. Companies should therefore be allowed and encouraged to compete towards the best sustainability metrics. An expectation for them to disclose their competitive advantage would be self-defeating.
time to move on?
Perhaps the most meaningful comment by Cohn & Wolfe is that some companies are leaning towards “greenmuting”.
Should that really surprise us? Let’s put things into perspective: sustainability is not a sexy sales argument; sustainability is a hygiene factor. In other words, a quality connected with a product that may not in itself be sufficient to satisfy the user, but will make him unhappy if it is absent.
Eventually, it is something any consumer should be able to expect as a matter of course, for any product from any supplier.
We have always expected that a product shall not present an immediate danger to our own health. Society has evolved and we have now extended that: we now expect that, by consuming a product, no indirect harm shall be caused to other people either.
Like any big evolution in civilization, the initial period provides the pioneers with great scope for capitalizing on their foresight, for instance by communicating their intentions and achievements to the wider public. But that period is not infinitely stretchable. At some point the newsworthiness wears off and the laggards should tread in their footseps without further fanfare.
The pioneers of the sustainability movement were Body Shop, Interface, Ecover, Virgin and a few others. They weaved fascinating stories about their transformational business ethics, methods and visions. But that was in the late 1970s, soon half a century ago. By any measure, we are well past the period that could legitimately be called pioneering.
Yet, a large faction of the communication industry is advising brands to turn the spotlight on their sustainability work, to engage consumers with compelling storytelling about sustainable supply-chains, recycling, consumption cycle of products, energy efficiency, the handling of chemicals, climate-change mitigation, workers’ rights, logistics. It is increasingly difficult to dress these up as compelling storytelling for consumers. The natural home for this type of information is in corporate sustainability reports, to be read by analysts and to be acted upon by institutional investors. Not for guiding you to pick-up the right washing-powder brand at your local supermarket.
If advertising continues to insist on glorifying mundane operational issues as interesting initiatives performed by exceptional companies, the pernicious implication is that normal companies are not yet expected to follow. If we keep presenting sustainability as something extra-ordinary which companies can boast about in their advertising, we will be sending our children the wrong message. They should grow up with an attitude that sustainability is a self-evidence, nothing to brag about.
Allow me an analogy with another typical but less complex hygiene factor: when the food industry introduced hair-nets and rubber gloves for its factory personnel, communicators did not jump onto this as an opportunity to “turn the spotlight onto our work with hygiene”. We did not witness a debate as to whether hair-nets or rubber gloves could add value to the brand, or create differentiation with the competition. There were no attempts to build exciting storytelling around hair-nets or rubber gloves. There was no underlying message suggesting “Buy our products, because we have now mandated our factory personnel to wear hair-nets.” And certainly not over and over again for half a century.
It quickly became a new standard and, if anything, experts in the field should have been slightly embarrassed about not having thought of this earlier. Sustainability and hygiene are both steps on the ladder of civilisation; the latter just happens to be easier to visualise and experience first hand. The additional complexity if sustainability does not increase its attractiveness or its longevity as a subject for communications.
In fact, it would be reassuring to find out that the trend towards greenmuting is driven by the realization of the awkwardness, or even the desperation, of trying to elevate the nitty-gritty of new sustainability disciplines into compelling themes for mass communications.
It is high time for sustainability to be treated as the hygiene-factor that it is. Therefore, this paper approves of companies that now tend towards greenmuting. By deduction, we have also addressed the issue of greenwashing: if companies should refrain from explicitly communicating even legitimate sustainability claims, it goes without saying that the same applies to companies with less credible claims.
For the avoidance of doubt, we do not intend greenmuting as inhibiting all communications on the subject. But it is time to move from low-context to high-context communications.
lecture by prof. kahneman
I would like to conclude with the transcript of the final part of the Sackler Lecture that Prof Daniel Kahneman gave at the National Academy of Science in May 2012. Prof Kahneman kindly brought it to my attention after reading the first chapter: Sustainability communications: What’s amiss? His talk "thinking that we know" perfectly summarises the theories expressed above.
“What we have is a storytelling system, and the coherence of the story determines how much faith we have in them. The coherence is associative coherence and it is emotional coherence. The conclusion is that System 1, in the story that I have described, is mostly in charge. There are times when it's not, for scientists, in their role of scientists, function mostly in System 2, except that their expertise is delivered through their associative system.
But if we want to communicate with people who are not experts, not scientists, if we want to be effective in communications, we must speak to their System 1. That is a different way of speaking. It almost necessarily involves stories. It involves concrete events. You have to assume that System 1 is largely indifferent to the quality and amount of evidence. It is bound more by the coherence of the story than by the evidence behind it. And then I would like to add something that is crucial: because of emotional coherence, the source of the message is extremely important.
The source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted. If the scientific establishment is not liked and is not trusted, then the amount of evidence is going to have very little purchase on what actually happens to people. Messages from mistrusted sources will be ignored and the amount of evidence will not matter.
Another unfortunate characteristic of System 1, is that it is highly concrete. Messages about threats that are abstract and distant will tend to be neglected. So, global warming, you know, it leads to a really pessimistic view about global warming. It seems unlikely that you can mobilize people in a democracy about a threat that is so distant and so abstract and so remote. It can be terrifying, but it's not real for people.
I can briefly summarize: I think there are those two ways of believing and knowing, and there are two ways of achieving coherence, logical coherence or associative or emotional coherence, and we tend to believe that we are our System 2 because that is what we are conscious of, but in fact most of what we are doing is dictated, and usually very appropriately and very correctly, by an associative system, over which we have very little control. And that, I think, has quite profound implications for the way we ought to talk to people.”
In a later chapter we will describe how sport sponsorship can effectively inspire a lifestyle that incorporates a positive attitude towards sustainability, without having to resort to explicit communication.
In this chapter we have argued why it is time for brands to move on from promoting their sustainability credentials by explicitly talking about their sustainability credentials. In the next chapter, we will explain how and why this is not just inefficient, but actually detrimental.
Well-informed people will make the right decisions.
Is this newsworthy?
Subject for captivating storytelling to the consumer?
One of the pioneering communicators.