How to get sustainable messaging right | #SustainabilityMonth

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We’re approaching the tail end of sustainability month and while we have touched on everything from the most sustainable careers to how to avoid greenwashing, one area we have yet to fully explore is how to actually do sustainable marketing right. Because sustainable messaging is a very easy thing to pay lip service to but a very difficult thing to get right.

But what does getting it right look like and what does getting it wrong look like? For the latter we only have to look as far as the Innocent smoothie brand, which had its ads pulled at the end of February after being accused by the Advertising Standards Authority of greenwashing due to exaggerating the environmental benefits of its products. 

There are also the Oatly TV ads that were pulled from the air in January with after 109 complaints were made about the claim that “Oatly generates 73% less CO2e vs milk, calculated from grower to grocer.” The truth is that only the premium version of the product generates 73% less CO2e when compared to whole milk. 

Both of these ads did it wrong in a pretty quantifiable way as they made significant exaggerations about their products that undermined their supposed core values. In the case of Innocent this was incredibly damaging as they have always been seen as the British poster child for mainstream sustainable brands despite their partnership with Coca-Cola - one of the world’s largest generators of single-use plastic.

But enough of this negativity. Let’s instead see this as a teachable moment and underline the critical elements of effective sustainable advertising.


The reason why the Innocent debacle felt like such a gut punch for so many people is that Innocent is a brand that was always seen as incredibly authentic. They spend years nurturing this authenticity by aligning their brand values and marketing with their product. The purpose needs to fit the brand values, otherwise there’s the risk of alienating anyone that’s even remotely sceptical of a brand’s activities within the sustainable space.


Give your audience advice on how they can use your brand to make the world a more sustainable place. This helps to embed your brand in consumer minds as a legitimate sustainable voice. The Co-op ad above is a great example here as it encourages daily behaviour change through storytelling and infers the impact via a clear connection with nature. The ad promotes positive behaviour and shows viewers how their actions can be meaningful, giving a sense of control, and showing how the brand can help people act on their intentions to behave sustainably.


Understanding your audience means not only understanding what they want out of your brands but how your creative choices will resonate with them. The wrong messaging is going to immediately turn off many of those who consider themselves sustainably active so take time to consider how your messaging is going to make your audience feel and react.


The best case scenario with any marketing campaign is for your audience to want to get to know your brand a little more and have more in common with your brand. Don’t be afraid to use subtle doses of humour to make your brand feel more approachable. The Hellmann’s Super Bowl TV spot above is a great example here - using a genuinely amusing concept to make a sustainable point. The “Make taste not waste” tagline is just the icing on the cake.


Of course, there is no way to get it 100% right as we’re all learning together as the expectations of the average consumer continue to change. But as long as you remain authentic and keep your audience at the forefront at all times you shouldn’t be pulling an Innocent any time soon.

Header image by Emily Culpeper


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