Marketing guru and co-founder of a successful communication agency, Solitaire Townsend has been helping businesses communicate around sustainability strategies for two decades. She tells us why companies must have a proper command of corporate social responsibility (CSR) issues and shares some of the secrets to effective green marketing.
CSR, a bulky new ingredient in the shopper’s basket
Sustainability is increasingly taking up an important place in the hearts of consumers, who now factor in CSR criteria into their purchase decisions. “In the past, firms might have gained an edge with a minority of consumers by addressing these topics but nowadays, companies that ignore them put themselves at a huge disadvantage”, Solitaire Townsend explains.
She pinpoints two reasons for this shift in mentality: “the external changes that more and more people are experiencing, and the changes taking place within ourselves over recent years”. These environmental changes are backed by hard scientific evidence: “A growing section of the world population is directly affected by climate and environmental change. From US storms to Asian pollution and volatile energy prices, we are no longer talking about trends or questions of values – this is reality”. The internal shift, meanwhile, is all about the sensitivity of Gen Y- and Z-ers to these situations. “They grew up in this context so they don’t question nor deny this reality. In fact, it is part of who they are. They are keenly aware of these issues that shape their decisions.” Illustrating this point, in 2015, 73% of under-35s said they would pay more for products made by responsible companies, an increase from 55% in 2014.
From intention to purchase: a gap for consumers and a potential worth billions for companies
However, there is a gap between the willingness to consume sustainably and the act of purchasing itself. Even today, only a minority of consumers regularly buy ecological or sustainable products. Non-existent or ineffective marketing by companies is often to blame, argues Solitaire. “Consumers expect companies to help them take the next step and close the gap. But most firms make the mistake of overlooking the issue or treating it as an afterthought, which makes them lose a significant share of the market.”
Meanwhile, companies that are serious about sustainable development and green marketing stand to gain handsomely. By closing the gap, firms turn themselves into front-runners. In her book Green Giants – How Smart Companies turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses, writer E. Freya Williams explains how nine major companies overhauled their strategy to base it around sustainable development. These “green giants”, says Williams, “represent over $100 billion in annual revenue and outperform their competitors in the stock market by 11%”. As Solitaire points out: “Green marketing is no longer an option, it has become the recipe for success!”
Logic and magic: two superpowers that turn consumers into heroes
But to achieve success, you have to know which ingredients to put in the mix. Solitaire identifies two critical ones to effective green marketing: “logic and magic. When we talk about sustainability, people are thinking not only with their heads, but also with their hearts. You can’t just win the arguments, you also have to woo consumers”.
Addressing the logic aspect means taking real and tangible steps towards sustainability. “Natural product formulations, recyclable packaging, environmentally-sensitive production… These things appeal to the left side of our brain, which is analytical and rational. Companies need to talk about hard, verifiable facts, ideally with powerful and immediate repercussions.” The magic of green marketing, meanwhile, is all about touching people’s hearts. “We engage with the right side of the brain, which governs our affective and emotional side. We need to make the consumer – not the company – the hero of the story”, explains Solitaire. The challenge is to convey the message that being a green consumer is neither a sacrifice nor a militant act, but rather a cool, natural and desirable thing to do. Solitaire flags the ugly fruit campaign by Intermarché, a French supermarket chain, as a great example: “Intermarché took an original stance by promoting large, misshaped fruits and veggies that customers had overlooked by giving them personalities and selling them at a 30% discount. The campaign was a hit because it gave consumers the sense that this simple purchase was not only contributing to their own well-being but also to the general public’s well-being. The fact that Intermarché did not try to portray itself as “perfect” and turned the focus towards its consumers instead played a part in its success. Without logic, it’s just green wash, but without magic, you can’t talk to the consumer and the message gets lost. The two are vital and work hand in hand”.
Solitaire’s goal: making sustainability desirable and “normal”
When she set up Futerra in 2001, Solitaire wanted to make sustainability more accessible and straightforward. She wanted to turn it into a fun and sexy cause that everyone could rally behind. Fifteen years later, she can look back with satisfaction at how far things have come. “There has been a huge shift in peoples’ mentalities. No one denies the central importance of sustainable development any more. But there is still a long way to go.” What’s next? “We want sustainability to be desirable and normal in equal measure. As long as we think of it as a side issue, or rather, as long as we continue to use words like green marketing or CSR strategy, the fight is not over.”