Around the Glasgow COP26 Climate Change Summit, the number of publications from market research agencies on the topic of sustainability spiked. But the trend I noticed goes beyond some well-planned media moments. Ipsos and Kantar, for example, have dedicated large sections of their websites to sustainability. It seems many leaders in the market research are getting onboard with making the world a better place.
Sustainability will remain one of the most important themes for marketers in the coming years. Every self-respecting brand will have to make clear choices about what its contribution to a better world is. Why? Because consumers are demanding it. Or, better yet, because the brands themselves want it. But wherever the desire to become more sustainable comes from, a successful approach to sustainability is no easy task.
Companies need help crafting sustainability messaging
Getting a sustainable message across is much more difficult than a “normal” marketing message because, in reality, sustainable marketing means that you want to entice consumers into behaving in ways they don’t really want to. Think about it – who wants to give up travel holidays? Consumers will largely benefit from behaving sustainably in the long run rather than the short term, and even then, their individual benefit is minimal.
At the same time, sustainable consumption is no longer something for the frontrunners. While an increasingly large number of consumers would like to make more sustainable choices, a large proportion of them does not succeed in doing so. This is due to a lack of knowledge, lack of supply, or because consumers are repeatedly tempted to make the unsustainable choice.
Done right, sustainable marketing can lead to success and profit
The difficulty of sustainable marketing is exemplified in Het grote gevecht (The Big Battle) by Jeroen Smit. In his book, Smit details the struggle of Unilever CEO Paul Polman to make the multinational company more sustainable. During Polman’s reign, Unilever’s impact on the planet has been reduced in many ways. But nowhere does it become clear how Unilever is able to convert all those sustainability initiatives into consumer preference. Even Unilever’s marketers, whom I hold in high regard, failed to do so. And as long as consumers don’t buy more of your more sustainable products, being sustainable costs (a lot of) money.
But if you succeed in getting consumers to choose your more sustainable products over those of the competition, then sustainability is a way to earn money – and make the world better at the same time. In this context, think of Dutch Chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely, which has turned an idealistic objective (slave-free chocolate) into its distinctive brand asset. By doing so, Tony’s has become one of the largest chocolate brands in the Netherlands and is additionally popular in overseas markets.
Knowing how to entice consumers to make more sustainable choices is crucial if you want to be a sustainable brand. You need to understand consumers’ choice architecture, motivations and barriers. Only then can you successfully influence their choices. Crystal-clear consumer insight paves the way to a world in which we use scarce resources in a sustainable way. No wonder, then, that market research firms have discovered sustainability.
Sustainable efforts attract new talent
Here’s one more reason to prioritize sustainability as a research firm: working for clients who value social goals over finances is fun, interesting, and worthwhile. If you want to attract talented researchers, consider the choices potential employees would make. A young, talented graduate would likely choose to work with start-ups oriented towards positive social impact over cigarette manufacturers. The agencies that offer their staff the chance to contribute to a better world will be able to attract the best people.
Good for the world and the industry
I’m pleased to see that the market research community is embracing the theme of sustainability. Because this is good for the sector, and for the world, if we succeed in helping marketers achieve their sustainability goals.