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Why Climate Change Iconography Needs a Refresh — and How Your Brand Can Achieve It

Here are three key considerations worth keeping in mind as you endeavor to find, create and use fresh, relevant visual content to communicate your brand’s commitment to sustainability — and even more importantly, inspire customers to action.

We’ve all seen them. An image of a polar bear on a melting ice cap. A koala singed by fire in the middle of a blackened forest. A city skyline, barely visible through smog and pollution.

In the early 2000s, these and other images emerged as the visual icons for climate change. Jarring at first, they forced us to pay attention and gave us a visible shorthand for understanding environmental issues when we saw them. Yet over the years, they’ve grown familiar, commonplace, and have admittedly lost some currency with repeated exposure.

So, what now? It’s time to move on — or perhaps it’s more fair to say, move forward.

It’s imperative that brands and businesses further visualize and introduce sustainable concepts to their audiences and customers through their advertising and marketing. But more than that, we need a new wave of provocative images — visual icons 2.0! — to continue to elicit emotional response and inspire action. If social responsibility and striving for a healthier planet isn’t enough, then know this: Authentically embedding sustainability into your storytelling directly impacts your business value and bottom line.

By not making sustainability a core component of your visual storytelling and identity, you’re leaving customers, purchasing power, and potential environmental impact on the table. According to data from Visual GPS — a research effort by Getty Images through which thousands of customers across 26 different countries were surveyed — 81 percent of customers expect businesses to be environmentally aware in all of their advertising and customer communications. Even more notably, roughly half of customers say they only buy products from brands that make an effort to be eco-friendly, willing to spend as much as 15 percent more for products or services that are sustainably made and which align with their values.

What does that mean? Sustainability isn’t just good for the environment and for us — it’s good for business, too.

As a whole, brands and businesses are fortunately trending in the right direction. Since last year, Getty Images searches for imagery illustrating “sustainability” and “sustainable living” have increased by 142 percent and 201 percent, respectively. But the goal now is to take this general, baseline visualization of sustainability and expand its scope with visuals that illustrate new, future-forward concepts — such as “circular economy” and “energy efficiency.”

As brands, we have the opportunity and responsibility to help customers bridge the gap between intention and action; but to do that, we need to move the conversation forward — which of course begs the question, how?

Here are three key considerations worth keeping in mind as you endeavor to find, create and use fresh, relevant visual content to communicate your brand’s commitment to sustainability — and even more importantly, inspire customers to action.

1. Give your customers credit — all of them.

Sustainability is often thought to be a younger generation’s movement — but that’s not true. Our data shows that sustainability is important to people of all ages across geographies and cultures, with 9 out of 10 respondents saying they believe the way we treat our planet now will have a significant impact on the future. They also said that brands must intentionally include representation across ethnicity, class, age, sexual orientation, gender identification, religion and culture — which further emphasizes our popular understanding that we all play a critical role in bettering the future of our planet. Which means that our collective visual storytelling should also represent that. Consider the following for each generation:

  • Baby Boomers: Our research shows that Baby Boomers favor imagery showing the direct impact their actions have on people, animals and nature. Be sure to include visuals of seniors (not just younger generations) partaking in environmental activism, and even better — depict the different generations interacting with each other as we don’t live in silos based on our age.
  • Gen X: Gen X is the most skeptical when it comes to any industry’s ability to do good for the environment; but through their roles as parents and leaders at work, they play a critical role in influencing the future. Try incorporating imagery which showcases sustainability in one’s professional and personal lives.
  • Millennials: They are the original renegades of the climate change movement, so go beyond the tired recycling imagery — they’ve been there and done that. Millennials are now all about purchasing power, so find imagery which showcases the impact of buying sustainably and shopping locally.
  • Gen Z: Gen Z is rooted in emotional connection and the belief that their united activism will change the world. Appeal to this group’s pathos, and reflect their belief in your visuals.

2. Focus on action and impact.

Visual language is a powerful tool for shaping people’s views — so much so that customers are twice as likely to be drawn to visuals that show how their own actions impact the natural world. Visual GPS has further shown that people believe that some of the best ways to positively impact the planet include recycling, stopping the use of single-use plastics, switching to environmentally friendly products and using renewable energy sources for home power; it’s up to brands to reflect and expand upon these actions in their visual communications.

Consider ditching visuals that prioritize takeaway coffee cups and plastic straws; and instead, treat them as part of the background — while highlighting innovative sustainable practices, technologies and industries.

3. Don’t steer away from newness.

No one knows what the next 50 years will look like, or what the next sustainable trend might look like — although we’ll likely find fresh ways to reduce our carbon footprints. While that can seem daunting, don’t run away from it. Last year, visuals depicting “decluttering” and “veganism” were on the rise, while this year has been the year of protest. Activism comes in all shapes and sizes — the more you showcase the spectrum, the more you’ll appeal to your customers.

The bottom line: The push to reimagine the visual make-up of sustainability is happening, with or without you. But it’d be a lot better for the planet, your customers and your business if you joined the fight.

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