Consumers Want Brands to Go for a Green Theme

As the world becomes more aware of climate change and other environmental issues, consumers are starting to pay closer attention to the social and environmental responsibilities of the brands they support.

Many companies are recognising the need to prioritise sustainability in their operations, including their marketing strategies. The question is, are they doing it quickly enough to match customer pressure?

Developing a sustainable marketing strategy helps to reduce a company’s environmental footprint, and also enhances brand reputation and customer loyalty.

A new study by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) says that, as with digital transformation, sustainability cannot be viewed as a stand-alone function and should encompass company-wide innovation and business models, driving behaviour change at a mass level and embracing collective responsibility.

WFA CEO Stephan Loerke says the world has reached a point where the status quo is no longer an option.

Sithembile Ngobese, director of corporate affairs & sustainable business at Unilever in Southern Africa, tells the FM: “Our approach is to grow a business that is completely and entirely centred on sustainability. We achieve this by using our brands as a force for good, powered by purpose and innovation.”

Doug Mattheus, former head of marketing at Cell C and now an independent consultant, says: “It’s been an important issue for a while, and while the original triple-bottom-line concept of people, profit and planet came out in the early 1990s, it’s enjoying more prominence and a voice as certain groups of customers are looking at things very differently.”

Carli Flemmer, who heads marketing at African Parks, says: “Consumers are waking up to the realisation that what is not protected today will not exist tomorrow, and the Gen Z cohort is demanding more than any previous generation from their brands and governments. Climate change and its myriad effects are dominating the headlines and brands — organisations and governments need to respond.”

The WFA study reveals that close to 50% of respondents worldwide have stopped buying products and services that have a negative impact on the environment and society. About 80% say businesses the world over have had the most negative impact on the world’s environmental problems. And 80% of those surveyed say companies need to be braver in communicating their sustainability efforts.

Ngobese says it has been proven that organisations with sustainable business practices experience not only improved financial performance, but benefit from greater customer loyalty.

“We acknowledge that consumers are becoming more conscious of aligning themselves with and supporting companies that demonstrate strong ethics and, importantly, stewardship of our fragile planet. They want companies that do not make unsubstantiated and deceptive claims and practices to boost sales and grow market share.”

She says Unilever is promoting and adopting environmentally and socially responsible processes in its entire manufacturing, selling and marketing value chain.

Mattheus says many local companies are aware of the need to change but deciding on a clear sustainability mandate and strategy, and sticking to it, is more difficult. He cautions against chasing the next “shiny object” as consumers will “call you out for greenwashing and being inauthentic”.

Flemmer agrees, saying greenwashing is pervasive in every industry. “Many brands thought sustainability was just a fad or a nice-to-have and this is the difficulty now for consumers, rooting out brands which are truly walking the talk.”

Ngobese says it’s critical for brands not to make sustainability claims they are unable to back up or substantiate with their marketing messaging.

“For example, in our quest to create a better, sustainable society for all, by 2030 we would have cut by half the greenhouse gas impact of our products across the life cycle, achieved zero emissions in our operations and replaced fossil-fuel-derived carbon with renewable or recycled carbon in all our cleaning and laundry product formulations. Furthermore, we are empowering farmers and smallholders to protect and regenerate farm environments, halve food waste in our operations by 2025 and ensure that 100% of our ingredients will be biodegradable by 2030.”

The WFA study says 55% of African companies are taking positive sustainability action compared with a global average of 38%, and more than 60% of marketers say they are feeling consumer pressure to change compared with 47% locally. A key problem, though, is lack of implementation skills. Fifty percent say they have a company knowledge gap, compared with 35% globally.