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Marketing and Comms
No More Eco-Babble:
How to Construct a Meaningful Social-Good Narrative

For the second year in a row, I was in Cannes last month doing a Palais session on marketing sustainability. This year, I was joined by my colleague Chip Walker, director of global planning for Young & Rubicam. Our strategic planning workshop was called “Beyond Eco-Babble: How to Change the Conversation Around Social Good.”

Cannes has extremely stringent criteria for its sessions and getting on the program is akin to winning a Lion. In response to my initial proposal, the organizers told me that while they view marketing sustainability as critically important and definitely wanted to include it as a workshop, as a topic it can be too serious, a bit of a mood-kill and not very much fun.

And they’re right. Because typically, the old social-good narrative as we know it goes something like: This brand is a hero on a noble crusade to save the world and various apocalyptic depictions — often involving a polar bear or two on an ever-diminishing ice floe — of the dire consequences that await if things go unchecked and, subliminally, if you don’t buy their brand. The tone is worthy, serious, high-minded, a bit preachy and talks down to consumers.

We call it “eco-babble.” While it’s urgent and true, this approach — just like the Cannes organizers’ concerns about the topic — is a mood-kill. Not fun at all. And it only stimulates a small percentage of consumers to change their buying behavior. In appealing to consumers as citizens first and as consumers second, it misses some of the key reasons why people buy things. Worse yet, study after study suggests that only about 10 percent of consumers respond to this kind of messaging.

So how should today’s socially responsible brands tell their story credibly and with maximum impact? Or why tell a social impact story at all? Why not forget about all this dreariness and sell another way?

Here’s why.

Our recently fielded BrandAsset® Valuator global research identifies a new generation of consumers we call Generation World™, a new global vanguard of consumers with co-existing values and traits unlike any we’ve seen before. They are hyperconnected, ageless, borderless and transmitters of culture. They care about the planet and they love to shop. Most importantly, they expect the brands they purchase to be part of the solution to the globe’s social and environmental challenges, and to make a meaningful difference in life. Finally, given their rapidly growing size — 29 percent of the total global market — they are a force to be reckoned with. And if brands fail to connect with this group in ways that resonate, they do so at their peril.

In order to reach Generation World, the new social good narrative has to go something like this: The consumer is the hero, while the brand takes on a humble, believable role. Brands are there to help customers live better and make a meaningful difference in life. They are optimistic, fun, and equal to the consumer. Co-creation and omni-media are now givens.

In our session, Chip and I demonstrated different approaches to looking at target audiences, engaging workshop participants in a strategic planning exercise to create a new narrative for brands that use CSR and sustainability activities as part of their brand story. We focused on how major brands currently and commonly treat sustainability, gave attendees a template for creating a new narrative, and introduced them to the rapidly increasing audience for that message.

It may not be everyone’s idea of a fun way to spend a summer afternoon in Cannes, but we’re honored and delighted to be starting this conversation with our fellow marketers from around the world.

C’est amusant.

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