The Greta effect puts pressure on brands


From the climate crisis to plastics pollution, people everywhere are increasingly concerned about the environment, and marketers need to have a response in 2020 to the growth of “conscious consumerism”.

Over the past year, the work of campaigners such as Greta Thunberg, and the Extinction Rebellion movement in the UK, has pushed the environment up the agenda and brands are taking note.

Eighty four percent of respondents to a survey for WARC’s Marketer’s Toolkit 2020 said conscious consumerism and sustainability would have significant or some impact on marketing strategies in the year ahead; and more than 75% agreed that brands need to take a stand on social issues.

Addressing environmental issues can be profitable, as Unilever has shown. Almost half of the FMCG giant’s top 40 brands are focused on sustainability and they are growing 50% faster than other portfolio brands and account for 60% of growth.

The Society chapter of WARC’s Marketer’s Toolkit 2020, titled The Greta Effect, draws out several findings.

• Consumers want action on the environment and brands are responding

A range of research from organisations ranging from Accenture to IRI has found that a majority of consumers are attracted to companies and products which are improving the environment. They expect companies to reset their corporate strategy to show they are limiting damage and taking steps to help solve the global environmental challenge.

Petco, the US pet supplies chain, for example, operates a cross-function sustainability council. This not only looks at all the vendor brands Petco carries, says CMO Tariq Hassan, but also “looks at every aspect of the internal organisation, from our IT infrastructure, our facilities management, to what I’m starting to think about in terms of production and communications”.

• Brands are auditing their packaging and looking to eliminate single-use plastic

Packaging presents a major challenge for manufacturing and retail brands – and it’s a 2020 focus for 46% of respondents to the Marketer’s Toolkit survey. Single-use plastic is particularly high on the agenda.

The focus on packaging extends to a review of the way products are sold. Procter & Gamble, for example, has introduced a packaging concept specifically designed to reduce e-commerce packaging. The company is also one of several brands looking at ‘refills’: it now offers some Olay face-cream jars with refill pouches on the brand website.

Brands are also putting pressure on third-party suppliers to address this issue. Gabriel Garcia, Head of Marketing APAC, Expedia, says: “One of the things that we’re working on is to see how we can enlist hotels that are reducing plastic, that are eco-friendly, and to have a stamp of validation or accreditation.”

• Marketers are assessing their supply chains and implementing recycling-by-design

Supply chains, cited by 41% of respondents to the WARC survey, will also be a 2020 focus, particularly with carbon emissions in mind. Fashion company H&M Group is looking to have a climate-neutral supply chain, extending through many of its suppliers, by 2030.

All H&M stores around the world also encourage customers to bring unwanted garments and textiles for recycling, rewear or reuse. But offering such a service is not enough; brands may need to incentivise customers to use it.

Concepts such as the circular economy (used goods are recycled and reused to make new products) and recycling-by-design (developing products with an eye to eventually recycling as many parts as efficiently as possible) are growing in popularity amongst major brands. P&G, Unilever and PepsiCo are part of the Loop initiative, which is looking to introduce refills to reduce packaging.

Elsewhere, pressure is growing on online retail to address its packaging footprint. Alibaba’s initiatives in 2019 included the creation of 75,000 permanent recycling stations across China to recycle cardboard and reduce the impact of consumption; trade-in programs allow consumers to replace over 40,000 used electrical products from 250 brands for new ones.

• Brands need more than purpose to ‘take a stand’ successfully

Consumers are often sceptical about brands that tap into societal issues, with a recent Edelman survey showing more than half think this is merely a marketing ploy rather than evidence of any genuine conviction. The same study pointed out that trust in a brand does not replace the importance of quality, convenience and value to consumers.

It is only when the three elements of product, customer experience and purpose are combined that brands really start to reap the benefits.

But brands need to be realistic about what they can do. While associating a brand with a noble cause is an emotional winner and can be an effective brand-building tool, it’s also challenging. Taking a stand should not be momentary, regional, or situational. Choosing the right partnerships can be one way of building credibility.

Sarah Owen, Senior Editor, WGSN, also points out: “The post-trust society has exacerbated the feeling that governments are not dealing with many of the issues that concern us today, and that creates white space where brands can step in.”

This article first appeared in

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