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Marketing and Comms
Sustainability Ideas Must Be 'Made to Stick'

Calls to shake up the sustainability community seem to be becoming increasingly frequent — the latest that I’ve read coming from the State of the World 2013 Report. With a warning that sustainability is in need of a “dramatic reboot,” it suggests a failure to deliver on the wealth of opportunities being promised.

Calls to shake up the sustainability community seem to be becoming increasingly frequent — the latest that I’ve read coming from the State of the World 2013 Report. With a warning that sustainability is in need of a “dramatic reboot,” it suggests a failure to deliver on the wealth of opportunities being promised.

To overcome this challenge, one thing’s for sure — there is a need for innovation and new ideas, just as there is for any step change in culture or business. When it comes to business, many companies have reached a point where the greatest need in delivering on their sustainability goals is to gain better cut-through with customers and employees. And in order to make this happen, a clearer focus is required on breakthrough ideas that will fire customers’ imaginations and excite their interest. In other words, marketing innovation needs to become an essential part of the sustainability mix.

Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath is a book written to investigate what’s special about ideas with the power to make themselves matter to people. According to the authors, sticky ideas all possess six qualities: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and rich in Stories. In the spirit of supporting the next phase of sustainable progress, where making positive change happen for people and society emanates throughout brands and business culture, it seemed like a good time to revisit their framework through a sustainability lens.


Sustainability, as we all know, is a complex web of related issues, and people in the field have always struggled with distilling this down into a theme or essence that is motivating for their audiences. One of the best examples used by the Heath brothers is the way JFK was able to simplify the diverse geopolitical concerns of the US government and the public into one simple goal ‘to send a man to the moon and return him safety to earth.’ How great would it be if a company could catalyze its own sustainability goals in such a way — clean, clear and captivating? Like all successful brands, sustainability teams need to find their own simple, singular idea, one that every current and future action will be designed to reinforce. At Given, we’re working with Virgin Media to create this kind of focus, based on a new mission to ensure that ‘Digital makes good things happen.’


So much of communication around sustainability is pitched at the same level. We can all recollect sustainability ideas that are friendly, balanced, warm, nice and positive. But where are the ideas and initiatives that are ugly, sexy, forceful, relentless, bold, fiery? Some counterintuitive thinking is needed to prevent ideas from landing in the same mental inbox as all the rest, like ‘saving the whales’ and’ switching over your light bulbs.’ An example from mainstream marketing is Persil's ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign. Viewed from this perspective, dirt means kids are learning, exploring and experiencing the world — set in contrast to the prevailing view, even paranoia, that dirt is an enemy of heathy family life. Lending the unexpectedness insight to the sustainability targets of many large consumer brands is a project from Crispin Porter, centred around adopting the marketing tactics of junk food to make healthy options appealing to kids. ‘Eat Em Like Junk Food’ was the idea that saw fruit being served in gregarious packaging from vending machines.


Offering concrete frames of reference is a well-established approach in sustainability to counter its complexity and abstractness — i.e. talking about the energy it takes to power X number of homes rather than the number of kilowatt hours. However this needs to go further if it is to really connect with things that people truly care about. One story told by the Heath brothers is about when Sony wanted to take the next big leap in technology. They set themselves a concrete challenge — to create a radio that can fit in someone’s pocket. When Elon Musk set out to make a revolutionary electric car the goal was equally concrete and motivating for everyone inside and outside the business — not only to make the best electric vehicle ever, but to make the best vehicle ever, on all measures. A concrete goal about the kind of business or brand you want to be will create much more of an impact on people than an abstract one, such as becoming carbon neutral.


The truth is that most companies struggle to have a position of authority when it comes to sustainability. Increasingly people don’t trust what companies say about products, let alone what they say about good intentions to create positive change. I recently read that the CEO of Tesco was surprised and dismayed to hear that people view their values-based communication with general suspicion. While there are many different sources of credibility, one of the strongest is to enable credibility to originate from the individual. The example used in Made to Stick is when Ronald Regan said during the 1980 election campaign, “Ask yourselves — are you better or worse off today than you were 4 years ago?” The problem with sustainability is that so much is hidden from view. I would predict that ‘see for yourself’ tactics will become a far bigger part of sustainable brand engagement — i.e. meet the farmer, visit the farm, taste the difference. How about a supermarket that commits to a health guarantee and asks customers if they feel their food options have become healthier since switching brands?


Time and time again science tells us that people are not the rational beings we once thought ourselves to be. Our knee-jerk, emotional response is the one most relied upon when interacting with the world. But sustainability thinking persists in seeking to win people over by selling rational benefits - often this equates to cost savings as explained by a recent research piece in the Guardian. The alternative is about tapping into people’s needs on a more human level. John Grant identifies a whole range of emotional needs that sustainability can help fulfill, needs that are currently underserved by the consumer society, such as community, lifelong learning, play and citizenship. Still one of my favourite case studies is the ‘Truth’ campaign, which sparks the passions of rebellious youth by whipping up anger and resentment towards the tobacco industry. A world away from most other anti-smoking campaigns, and a whole lot more successful.


‘Sustainability Storytelling’ is getting a lot of cut-through recently by way of presentations, workshops and thought pieces. I fear that most of this misses the point. The focus seems to be on story as an after thought — the real task is to bake story ideas into the whole process, not just as the icing but as the whole cake. Toms Shoes is a great example of a product that has a personal story attached to every single pair sold. Mary Porter’s ‘Kinky Knickers’ make British-made the whole story, one which makes them pants apart and powerful enough to make consumers happily pay the difference. Seeing recently that John Lewis are committing to bringing much of their manufacturing back to the UK, I wonder how long it will be before they can make ‘helping Britain be great’ into a turn-key storytelling opportunity.

When thinking about the whole landscape of new ideas and innovation — from any part of business and for any purpose —I suspect sustainability is some distance behind other disciplines. This makes me think back to the early goal of Tesla motors espoused by founder Elon Musk and described above — to make the best car on all measures — and I think there’s something extra needed. Because people in the sustainability community need to be braver and adopt Musk’s kind of gusto when it comes to breakthrough creativity. We need new ideas designed to win out in the free market of brand and business ideas. We need ideas that stick.