Marketing for the world we want: It’s time to cast a wider net

For too long, sustainable products and services have been advertised to a very specific type of person.

These individuals – who might already use a reusable mug, buy chemical-free cleaning products or own an electric car – are the ‘ethical consumers’ that sustainable brands most frequently target.

Yet, data from Climate Outreach’s ‘Britain Talks Climate’ suggests that this audience only makes up about 14% of the UK population, and they’re the ones who have already taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint. What about everyone else?

Brands are therefore missing out on significant opportunities – marketing to a niche instead of the majority. Instead, we need to re-focus advertising efforts to reach ‘Persuadables’: the 69% of the UK population who “are concerned about climate change but don’t always actively buy from sustainable brands”.

By targeting this audience with the right messages, brands have the power to not only drive demand for their sustainable products, but also make a real impact in empowering sustainable behaviours.

The IPCC says that we need to halve emissions by 2030, and that our lifestyles and behaviour can account for 40-70% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. These are deep cuts, which can result from diet changes, switching to electric transport, and changing our energy habits.

More inclusive marketing can help drive these changes, whether that be switching to sustainable brands, supporting a circular economy or choosing an electric vehicle.

It’s time to look beyond just 14% of the market – here’s why marketing can and must play a part in changing consumer behaviour for the better.

Start by understanding people’s needs

The Persuadables include older people, ethnic minorities, working-class backgrounds and those who live outside the UK’s big cities. Naturally, this diverse group of consumers share a range of concerns shaped by the unique challenges of their communities.

To engage these audiences, brands need to first understand what they care about and how these issues impact their lives and decision-making.

For starters, Persuadables are under pressure. The cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated existing challenges and put a heavy burden on their quality of life. Many are concerned with making ends meet, while at the same time witnessing cuts to local services like the NHS, public transport and local businesses.

As one Persuadable noted, “I need to put myself first and my family first.”

This means they are increasingly cost conscious, and less likely to find the money for brands which don’t speak their language. For example, Persuadables are deeply connected to their local communities, which translates into their purchasing behaviours ­– they’re far more likely to purchase a product with a tangible local impact, than a nebulous, global one.

While they struggle to engage with the topic of climate on a global scale, they’re fiercely protective of issues closer to home. Employment fears, income worries, concerns about local green space and more visceral issues like racism are all top-of-mind for Persuadables.

Because of this, leading with “save the world” messaging can feel overwhelming or out of touch, and actually trigger apathy amongst Persuadables. It’s often difficult to really see how small changes can make a difference, especially if there’s a disconnect between large-scale environmental ambitions and the things that matter at a local level. It’s far better to focus on the personal, collective, or direct local benefits of action to make things really salient.

The importance of a multi-channel media approach

To encourage the adoption of sustainable behaviours, brands need to speak to Persuadable audiences on the channels and platforms where they spend their time.

Broadcast channels remain hugely important, especially in the current cost-of-living crisis, however research has shown that the most effective campaigns are multichannel. Brands need to adapt their media strategies to include channels such as VOD, apps, platforms, publishers, influencers, and more.

Our research showed that social media is the least trusted channel by Persuadables. Facebook, for example, is seen as a source of “fake news,” while established news outlets are also often scrutinised for their bias. If you’re investing in social, combine it with trusted channels such as out-of-home for maximum effect.

The word ‘sustainability’ itself is poorly understood, and brands often fall into the trap of using jargon, or complicated language when talking about environmental issues. Persuadables prefer information that is concise and easy to digest. Brands can appeal to this preference by creating simple, digestible content that’s immediately relevant. “Snippets are better,” noted one respondent. “I wouldn’t wait for that segment to come up in the actual news.”

To build trust and connect with Persuadables, brands should also seek to crack the cultural codes set by their target audience, blending seamlessly into their media environments, and working with messengers who look and sound like them. Too often, we’ve associated sustainability with the middle classes, and female signifiers. We need masculine visions of sustainability, and ones which appeal to people of different backgrounds and ethnicities, to really connect with a wider group of people.

By taking these insights and applying a test and learn approach, brands can determine which strategies resonate most with different Persuadable groups.

Price as a barrier in the path to purchase

There are several barriers in the path to purchase that stop Persuadables from buying sustainable products, but perhaps none more topical than price during the cost-of-living crisis.

Kantar’s Sustainability Index 2022 found that 65% of respondents want to be environmentally conscious, but higher prices are preventing them from doing so. ‘Green’ products are often 75% to 85% more expensive, making them inaccessible to many. This reinforces the idea that ethical products are only for the wealthy.

To overcome this, brands need to rethink their pricing strategies to make sustainable choices more accessible and affordable. This means looking at cost across the value chain – from production to wholesale and retail.

Practical ways to become more relevant to Persuadables

Making sustainability accessible and appealing to Persuadables requires a practical approach from brands. Here are some effective strategies to consider:

  1. Connect sustainability to local issues – Co-op’s “cooking up a difference” campaign is a great example of this. By highlighting how every purchase funds local community groups, from mental wellbeing services to apprenticeships for young people, Co-op focuses on the direct, tangible impact on the communities that consumers care about.
  2. Normalise new choices – Burger King, aims to make plant-based options a popular choice for everyone. According to Katie Evans, the Chief Marketing Officer at Burger King UK, “Our expansion of plant-based offerings showcases our dedication to offering a varied and innovative menu, with the goal of having 50% meat-free options by 2030.” Burger King serves as a prime example of a brand utilising its influence to change behaviours and bring plant-based foods into the mainstream.
  3. Lead with a strong, personal benefit – Not everyone will buy sustainable products to save the planet. Brands that speak to a human need will win with Persuadables. For example, emphasising how a product can improve health, save money, or make life easier can get them on board.
  4. Find trusted messengers – Persuadables are more likely to be influenced by people similar to them – think proximity, gender, age and profession – so do your research and identify the right ambassadors to reach the right communities. Inclusion should underpin every single brand touchpoint and your marketing approach must be as diverse as the audience.
  5. Crack the cultural codes – Brands need to reflect Persuadables’ worlds, featuring their families, neighbourhoods, accents, and ways of living. These cultural nuances are vital to create interest and relevance. This includes taking a diversity lens when selecting the media that your ad will appear in.

A More Inclusive Way Forward

We have a limited amount of time to act on issues such as climate change, and a huge opportunity to grow the market for the type of products and services that will play a part in making this change happen.

But marketing to a niche isn’t going to do that; we need to ditch our obsession with the myth of the ethical consumer to embrace the greater opportunity in front of us.

Naturally, marketing isn’t the whole answer. Brands need to get their own house in order too and produce products and services that are genuinely sustainable. Stronger green claims codes, and Gen Z’s uncompromising attitude to ethics will see to some of that change. But for those brands with products and services that are or want to be part of the change, we hope this research helps.

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