Christian Yonkers and Tom Idle
Published 1 year ago.
About a 8 minute read.
Marketers, this one’s for you: Just a few pearls of wisdom dropped on day two of Brand-Led Culture Change — including understanding and eliminating
microaggressions, the secret sauce of shareable content, what matters to each target demographic, and rethinking assumptions of who the ‘sustainable consumer’ could be.
A recurring theme running through Sustainable Brands™’ Brand-Led
event this week is the demand for storytelling to change culture and behavior
that will drive the sustainable change the world needs. It’s important we tell
the right stories, of course. But how we tell is even more important.
Nadine Spencer, CEO & President at BrandEq
and the Black Business and Professional Association, kicked off the
Wednesday morning plenary by exploring the power and influence of language in
creating a more equitable world.
“We need to look at how inclusive language can bring resources, opportunities,
and equal access to those who society was not made for it,” she declared in her
opening statement. Then, she candidly reflected on her first-hand experience of
micro and macro aggressions that are commonplace in the language we all use.
“People ask, ‘Can I take off your scarf, so I can see your hair? People ask
intimate questions about your relationship because of misconstrued ideas about
power dynamics in non-heterosexual relationships. It’s about being asked where
you’re from — I say I’m Canadian and people say, ‘No, where are you really
Spencer hopes her Micropedia of
Microaggressions project will help to equip
people — and brands — with inclusive language that will help us write our way to
a more equitable future. “It’s not a blame game; it’s an explain game,” she
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Eileen Chen, Senior Sustainability Campaigns Strategist at Radley
Yeldar, delivered a similarly powerful and simple message: When it comes to
sustainability stories and messaging, brands are targeting the wrong
And that’s a problem, given we need everybody — not just young, left-leaning
women — to adopt the necessary changes to protect the environment and enhance
our social and economic wellbeing.
“Brands just tend to kind of hone in on this target market — and I understand
why. But it just isn’t right for advancing sustainability,” Chen said. She
pointed to the example of Tesla’s communications — which uses masculinity in
its imagery of tech and innovation while also appealing to grandparents, asking
them to consider the future they are creating for their grandchildren.
Next, renowned writer Jonah Berger — author of
Contagious: Why Things Catch On,
and the just-released The Catalyst
— offered his take on why marketers should use sociology and psychology to
encourage consumers to adopt sustainable behaviors. And he focused on the
importance of sharing stories and word of mouth in driving home messages.
“We can accumulate friends and followers and social connections. But if people
don’t share our stuff, it’s not going to matter.” Sharing content is not random,
luck or chance. There’s a science behind why people talk and why they share,
Berger said. And that’s crucially important for brands trying to bring about
culture and behavior
In his research, Berger has looked at thousands of pieces of online content,
tens of thousands of brands and millions of purchases around the world: “Again
and again, we see the same six factors come up.” He put them in a framework
known as STEPPS:
Social currency — “how we look to others. The better something makes
people look, the more likely they are to talk about it.”
Triggers — “top of mind. The more we’re thinking about something, the
more likely we are to take action.”
Emotion — “When we care, we share.”
Public — “easy to see, easy to imitate.”
Practical value — “It’s all about providing useful information.”
Stories — “When people put their kids to bed at night, nobody tells
bedtime facts. They tell bedtime stories. And great stories can act as
vessels or Trojan horses that carry messages along with the ride.”
Berger concluded by reinforcing the point that creating word of mouth is not
only about creating brilliant ads or viral online content: “What’s much more
important is that each person we connect with — donors, customers, touch points,
people that might support our cause or product or idea — we need to think about
how we can turn them into an advocate and get them to share with just one other
In the social media age, we should dismiss the power of influencers at our
peril. Isaias Hernandez (@QueerBrownVegan)
and Sabrina Pare
(@Sabrina.Sustainable.Life) are two
environmentally focused young creatives using the reach and influence of
Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat and the like to engage
the new generation. And there’s plenty for brands and marketers to learn from
Pare — who spends her time giving tips on how to live an eco-friendlier
lifestyle through low-waste living, primarily on TikTok and Instagram — has a
community of more than 200,000 people. “My mission is to inspire and educate
others on how to live a more sustainable life and how we can all do our part to
better our planet.”
Hernandez uses his platform to give information on environmental, health and
justice issues. “It’s informative content that allows people to understand how
our own impacts are really interconnected to the ecological crisis.”
The pair explained what ‘good’ content looks like. “Make it concise and
digestible … and make sure the audience feels like you're directly talking to
them,” Pare offered. “It’s about making that connection and not just talking at
them — but providing value and education, as well as context to what you’re
For Hernandez, it’s important not to just use buzzwords. “I really focus on
ensuring that consumers and my community have the ability to ask questions;
there must be some openness and communication for brands to be able to connect
with their communities,” he said. “People feel very intimidated to email brands,
especially younger generations; they feel they’re not smart enough.”
Brands must invest in their social media managers to educate them, so they can
give solid responses, he adds: “What’s happening now is that the dialogue is
moving to the comment sections. That’s where people give thoughts and opinions
on their usage of products or what they think brands should be doing. So,
listening to your core audience is essential.”
Such dialogue and engagement can be useful for brands looking to improve their
products and services. More and more consumers are asking more critical
questions of brands — about their products, their marketing or their
sustainability goals. As Hernandez points out, it’s time brands invested more
effectively in their community-building; they’d do well to use social
influencers like Pare and Hernandez to build that community, too.
It’s not enough to be a brand with purpose: Brand values must intersect with the
core of Gen Z.
Gen Z and Millennials came of age during a time of ongoing global unrest —
against the backdrop of 9/11, a decades-long war in the Middle East, the Great
Recession, climate change, the pandemic, and elevated social and political
“For good reasons, they’re concerned about the future,” said Whitney Dailey,
EVP of Purpose at Allison+Partners.
But Gen Z hasn’t given up; and brands looking to engage this demographic should
proceed with caution: Less than half of Gen Z trusts companies, and none respect
platitudes and lip service from companies and governments. But it’s not enough
to be purpose-driven: Values and progress must be clearly shown in marketing.
Allison+Partners research discovered a clear intent-to-action gap between what
Gen Z values and what they actually purchase. Gen Zers are fans of many brands
not typically associated with sustainability, which is likely a result of Gen
Z’s low purchasing power — loaded with conviction but strapped for cash, Gen Z
is looking to those in power to make the change needed to save the world.
“Instead of rebelling against the system, they’re turning to the system to fix
it,” said Kathy Alsegaf, Global International Sustainability Leader at
Alsegaf pointed to Greta Thunberg’s damning
edict on adults’ role in causing
climate change, and their responsibility to fix it. The problems are huge,
Alsegaf said, and can’t be taken on without government and business; and an
all-out rebellion is a luxury Gen Z doesn’t have.
Instead of taking to the
and voting with their dollars, Gen Z is taking to social media to demand change
and accountability. Since the onset of the pandemic, climate has dropped in
importance to both Gen Z and Millennials; personal health and safety, financial
security, and social issues are taking prominence.
But climate isn’t completely off the Gen Z and Millennial radar screen —
three-quarters of both Gen Z and Millennials believe the world is at a tipping
point for climate, and only 44 percent are optimistic; half believe it’s too
late to do anything.
Still, the overwhelming majority still take strides to live more sustainably,
though their efforts are mainly focused on reduction and impact of consumption —
an opportunity for brands to make more effective changes relatable and
attainable to Gen Z and Millennials.
To engage Gen Z and Millennials, don’t just share ambition — get granular in
exhibiting the how. Both Gen Z and Millennials are putting pressure on
employers to take climate action — because very few have faith that there’s
appropriate institutional change to address climate.
“Be authentic as a brand,” Dailey asserted. “Gen Zers will not tolerate
performative actions or statements. Show progress, and show how your goals and
your commitments are being executed; and if you’re having problems meeting those
goals or commitments, talk about why.”
Published Jun 10, 2022 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
Christian is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.
Content creator extraordinaire.