Everything you think you know about advertising is wrong when it comes to sustainability

by May 1, 2024

Shelton Stat of the Week

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of people around the world say buying/using eco-friendly products is an important part of their self-image. — Eco Pulse®, 2024 (Global)

I’m facilitating the Friday plenary session at Sustainable Brands’ Brand Led Culture Change event in Minneapolis next week. If you’re not registered for the event, you should be (and you can take care of that here)!

It strikes me that we can’t talk about driving culture change without talking about advertising because the two have always been a mirror of each other. Take a look at the ads below. You’ll be able to quickly – and in some cases, horrifyingly – link them to an era/decade/moment in time in our culture. And the chicken-and-egg question is, of course, which came first, the culture represented in the ad or the ad itself?

Keep up with the house while you keep down your weight. Vintage Advertisement. Keep it in your pants. Vintage Advertisement The chef does everything but cook - that's what wives are for! Vintage Advertisement

(Source material: 43 Vintage Ads That Really Didn’t Age Well (cheezburger.com), Amazing vintage video game ads from the 1980s and 1990s – Rare Historical Photos)

Clearly, sustainability is part of our culture, as the Shelton Stat of the Week points out: 58% of people around the world want to be seen as someone who buys eco-friendly products. In the United States, that number is 46% – up from 33% ten years ago.

But if you take the same approach to sustainability advertising as the advertising industry has taken since the beginning of time, you may well wind up in court – and stumble in the court of public opinion.

With traditional advertising, you can engage in hyperbole. You can be vague. You can say your burger is the best tasting burger in the world, and you don’t have to back it up with why or data or baselines of comparison.​ In fact, most advertising promises some sort of impossible-to-prove benefit, “buy our product because it will make you cooler, sexier, smarter, friendlier, more efficient, a better person…”.

In many ways, green products aren’t different. The companies advertising them know many people buy them because of the statement it makes about them. And it’s not that you can’t imply those same emotional benefits in your advertising. But you can’t say your product is green – or that your company is green – without backing it up with verifiable data. In other words, you can’t suggest or imply that a product is green with imagery (like a green leaf) and innuendo, and you can’t call a product green just because it’s got some recycled content in the packaging or because it was locally sourced.

Your implicit and explicit messages must be verified so that what you’re saying means what people interpret it to mean. Unilever and Delta are both learning this the hard way. Both companies are doing a LOT of really great work on sustainability; their messaging just wasn’t fact-based enough. In other words, traditional approaches to advertising were applied even though those approaches don’t apply for sustainability.

Join me in Minneapolis next week and we’ll dig further into when and how you can leverage some of the traditional persuasion tools from advertising’s toolbox – and how to effectively drive culture towards a sustainable future while building your brand at the same time.

News of the Week
Consumers win with EU’s Green Claims Directive, but marketers fear ‘greenhush’ fallout
Consumers win with EU’s Green Claims Directive, but marketers fear ‘greenhush’ fallout

With CSRD on the way, it’s no secret that the EU is a leader when it comes to sustainability regulations. This Reuters article discusses how the EU is trying to put an end to greenwashing with the Green Claims Directive providing regulations around using sustainability-related words.

Read more…

FTC greenwashing crackdown, fashion speaks up

FTC greenwashing crackdown, fashion speaks up
Yahoo! News

We’ve mentioned the impending Green Guides update many times on our blog. This Yahoo! News article shows industry organizations’ responses to them and discusses the need for the update.

Read more…

Cultures, Countries & Your Sustainability Story

Our annual Eco Pulse® study has gone global. We surveyed people in 12 countries to better understand how they conceptualize an eco-friendly person — and what that means for companies’ sustainability communications. Our latest free report reveals how local cultural values connect to local sustainability concerns and provides specific communications guidance for brands operating and/or selling around the globe.

Hint: Multi-national brands, you don’t want to miss your opportunity to connect on a deeper level with your audiences.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.