The key to marketing sustainability is making it relevant to values consumers already hold. Instead of trying to convince people they need to care about "sustainability" — it's more productive to talk to them about honesty, responsibility, fairness and innovation - all the things sustainability, at its core, is about.
A quite impressive 1.4 million people read Treehugger in the course of a month -- yet that's not enough to sustain a movement. For sustainability to be sustainable, it has to instigate a permanent structural change in how MOST PEOPLE live their lives. To reach a majority of people, we need to make our values relevant to a majority of people. And the majority of First World earthlings don't wake up planning to save the planet. Instead, they're hungry for breakfast, concerned about their family, curious about the newest episode of CSI, and wondering how they're going to get through their day. It's important to understand what captures the imaginations and anxieties of the folks outside our 1.4 million circle of tree huggers. Here are some numbers:
• US Magazine circulation: 1,850,000 weekly• Viewers watching "Dancing With The Stars" 22,800,000• Harry Potter's opening weekend gross $77.4 million• YouTube viewings of the Angry Professor destroying a student's cell phone: 3,136,515
This doesn't mean that you need to hire Paris Hilton, or indiscriminately smash a few cell phones. But it does mean that mission-driven marketers should go out of their way to find points where their issues intersect with people's values. It's easy for those of us who've given our day jobs over to sustainability to assume that more mainstream folks are shallow and self-interested. But that really isn't the case.
US Magazine loves to show the likes of Kate Hudson and Ben Affleck doting over their children. The essence of "Dancing With The Stars" is watching a star (I use that term loosely) put in the hard work required to learn something new. The appeal of Harry Potter lies in the protagonist's honor and heroism. And the staggeringly popular YouTube clip of the angry professor has no nudity, crudity or stupid pet tricks -- it's about a professor un-hesitantly standing up for the integrity of his classroom.
People care about their families. They respect integrity. They love innovation. All these values are wrapped up in sustainability. Five years ago, I was displaying our Prius at an Earth Day exposition at NC State University. I quickly learned the best way to interest engineering students was to explain the car's regenerative breaking. Once engaged with the intelligence of the technology, they were interested in its good-for-the-planet benefits. As a global abstraction, sustainability is a difficult sell. This is not because people are selfish, but because their concerns are closer to home. People are quickly engaged when you explain sustainability in terms of their children's future. That's common ground. For better and for worse, evolution has made qualities such as empathy, nurturing and conformity more adaptive than leadership. So sales pitches that ask people to do what no one else is doing tend to fall on deaf ears (* Yes, you smarties out there, there ARE indeed leadership brands that need to be marketed this way -- but sustainability needs to be a mass brand). Why buy carbon offsets or avoid flying when it feels like you're the only one? However, when sustainable actions are conveyed in the context of family or helping others, audiences are much more likely to respond. Consider the tremendous response to immediate human crises like the Asian Tsunami and Katrina -- as contrasted to the more tepid response to the Apollo Alliance.
One of my favorite frontiers of common ground is self-expression. Generation X, Y and baby boomers ALL highly value individuality (individuality is now expressed through an ironic kind of conformity, but that's a post for another day). Tattoos, blogs, cell phone skins, ipod cozies, facial piercing and Cafe Press society are all examples of the ways that people show off their individuality. One of the best ways to build a bring-your-own culture in our disposable society is to emphasize the forums for individual expression offered by reusable mugs, water jugs and napkin bandanas.
In addition to meeting the market on common ground, it's important to make it easier for people to step over to your territory by "unpacking" your terminology. One reason that fair trade coffee has taken off is that the term "fair trade" needs little unpacking -- fairness is a universal value. Everyone supports the general idea of a fair trade. If item A is marked fair trade, and item B is not, and there is no appreciable price or quality difference, people will almost always choose item A. If your product is excellent, parity-priced, and branded well -- fair trade becomes not just the right thing to do, but a core competitive advantage. That's the power of branding products with a higher agenda. If you can create a brand with high quality and personality appeal that's also good for the world, you end up with an offer that's difficult to refuse. The implicit value of fair trade is the exception to the rule. As an idea and as a language, "sustainability" requires substantial unpacking. Ditto for "carbon offsets," "renewable energy credits," organic fabrics, FSC-certification, and alternate materials such as bamboo and hemp. In war, knowing your enemy is a key to victory. In marketing, it's about understanding and respecting your customers.
This post is the second of 5 focusing on the marketing advantages of businesses that care as much about the planet as profits. The first post addressed the need for sustainable businesses to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and following posts will address Credibility and Authenticity; Being More Than Green; and Theory and Practice.
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change, a brand-strategy and design agency that works exclusively with companies and organizations that make the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic.
[Disclosure: This guest post was arranged through TreeHugger writer Sami Grover, who also works for The Change as the company's Director of Sustainability and Media Liaison]