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.
Storytelling for the future we want
A recurring theme running through Sustainable Brands™’ Brand-Led Culture Change 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 Group 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 from?’”
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 said.
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 people. 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, Invisible Influence 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 change.
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 person.”
Creatively engaging the next generation
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 them.
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 talking about.”
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.
Ok, Doomer: Insights on Generation Regeneration
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 unrest.
“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 Deloitte.
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 streets 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.”