Four Pillars of Sustainable Business and Green Marketing

April 22, 2019

By Morgan Strawn

Malte Mueller/Getty Images

"Marketing is in a state of disruption," says to Marc Pritchard, the chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble and chair of the ANA board of directors. He explains that "people expect more from brands and companies. They expect us to do good for society and for the planet. Brands really have the opportunity and responsibility to step up and do good — and do so in a way that's good for growth."

An architectural metaphor can illustrate how Pritchard's aspiration can be achieved in practice. If environmental sustainability and business growth are depicted by two slopes of a roof, then the means of achieving these dual objectives can be represented by four supporting pillars: product development, supply chain management, waste reduction, and charitable partnerships. Marketers have critical roles to play in upholding each of these pillars, offering them the chance to triumph on behalf of both their business and the biosphere.


Product Development

Perhaps the most visible way that companies can help steward the environment is by creating goods and services that directly contribute to sustainability. This was the approach that Finnish oil company Neste adopted when it developed its Renewable Diesel, a low-carbon biofuel. As marketers will be able to understand, however, the company faced a challenge in convincing skeptical consumers that the product's environmental benefits would not come at the expense of their vehicles' performance.

Most newly-launched, ecologically friendly products will encounter similar suspicion from consumers who are leery of being hoodwinked into buying a pretty, green, and inert paperweight. To surmount this challenge, Neste's marketers developed a campaign that targeted the managers of California truck-fleets. The ads featured images of clear trucks and animations of solid trucks becoming clear; these graphics conveyed the fact that Renewable Diesel took the negative environmental effects of traditional diesel off the road without altering the performance of the trucks that used it.

The persuasive power of these ads led over 300,000 people to click through to the Neste landing page — an indication of the raised interest-levels that in turn helped the company increase its revenue by an impressive 13.1 percent. Such results illustrate the advantages that technological innovators can deliver simultaneously for the environment and for their organizations when they work in tandem with skilled marketers.


Supply Chain Management

Even when companies don't sell a product that directly benefits the environment, they can still promote sustainability through conscientious approaches to managing their supply chains. General Mills illustrated such an approach when it transformed a threat to its source materials into an opportunity to model faithful environmental stewardship. At the time, the company reported that 30 percent of the ingredients in its products relied on pollinators such as bees — a dependence that turned into a liability when 44 percent of bee colonies in the U.S. collapsed in 2016. In response, General Mills invested more than $4 million with the Xerces Society, the world's largest pollinator conservation group. The contribution funded large-scale pollinator-habitats at farms that supplied the ingredients for General Mills's products to help restore and support the populations of bees and other pollinators.

To boost public awareness of the plight of pollinators and, more subtly, its own conscientious work on their behalf, General Mills launched its #BringBackTheBees promotion. The most visible aspect of the effort was a change in the packaging for Honey Nut Cheerios, which, beginning in the spring of 2017, featured a white silhouette where the BuzzBee image was normally located — an arresting evocation of the vanishing populations of pollinators. More practically, the promotion provided wildflower seed packets to participating consumers, enabling them to do their own part to help restore pollinator habitats.

A recent issue of ANA Magazine reports how furniture-makers IKEA and Herman Miller are turning their own supply chains into opportunities to champion sustainability. As participants in the NextWave project, the companies are developing ways of taking plastic waste that would otherwise be destined for the ocean and using it in their own products.

IKEA, Herman Miller, and a number of other brands are collaborating as part of an effort to reuse post-consumer plastic waste in more renewable ways. Experts say authentic efforts like the NextWave project resonate with consumers and contribute to meaningful change for the planet while helping companies deliver on their bottom lines. Lonely Whale/YouTube


Waste Reduction

Of course, a company's impact on the environment isn't a function of just its approach to sourcing — that is, what it takes out of the environment; it is also a function of the waste that it puts back into the environment. It's unsurprising, then, that consumers have come to expect a deliberate approach to minimizing that waste from all businesses. Once, however, businesses have faithfully fulfilled these expectations, it can be difficult for marketers to trumpet what amounts to paying table stakes in ways that evoke and differentiate their brands.

NASCAR effectively surmounted this challenge in an ad that drew viewers' attention to a number of the initiatives that comprised its NASCAR Green program, including the efforts to promote biofuel and to plant nearly half a million carbon-capturing trees. The ad began with an aerial view of a NASCAR track, with the narrator explaining, "What goes around comes around, and as a sport that races in laps, we know that a clean race pays off in the finish. It's why NASCAR commits to green programs and biofuel like Sunoco E15 — so we can offset our carbon emissions."

As the voiceover played, the ad rolled a montage that visually echoed the racetrack with other circular, environmentally friendly geometric figures: the rings of a tree, the sun reflected in a solar panel, the mouth of a fuel tank orbited by the words "American Ethanol," and a hole being filled from above by a plant. This sequence of images thus rendered stock-car racing visually synonymous with planetary health rather than with the ecological wounds that the sport's historical use of fossil fuel use might otherwise call to mind.


Charitable Partnerships

In some cases, businesses cannot achieve their environmental objectives entirely on their own, necessitating partnerships with charitable organizations. Such collaboration, however, need not dilute the benefits of supporting the environment; on the contrary, it can compound the benefits that ultimately accrue to a brand by amplifying the initiative's message more than the business could have done on its own. This is the very type of success achieved by marketers at Sambazon, a maker of foods based on açai and other ingredients from the Amazon region.

The purple-logoed company undertook a campaign that sought to both increase brand awareness and help the environment. Sambazon's "#PurpleForThePlanet" stipulated that for every purple-haired selfie that supporters posted to social media, the company would donate enough money to the Rainforest Trust to save five acres of rainforest, which in turn would help save the native species from extinction.

To help stoke engagement with the campaign among millennials and generation Z, Sambazon's marketers enlisted numerous social media influencers, including stars of shows such as Riverdale and Queer Eye. The three-pronged collaboration between the brand, the charity, and these pop culture personalities enabled the campaign to generate 163.9 million impressions, increase Sambazon's Instagram followers by 17 percent, and spike its web traffic by a dramatic 1,240 percent. Most important, however, was the campaign's environmental impact, which, by Sambazon's calculations, helped save 126,270 acres of rainforest and 216 species.

Although the four pillars described above may not exhaust the full array of approaches that companies can use to promote environmental sustainability, they do provide a schema for understanding many of them. To help support businesses as they uphold each of these pillars, marketers can follow suggestions such as the ones that, by way of summary, are listed below alongside each of the four pillars of sustainable business:

  • Product Development: Compellingly dramatize how a new product continues to deliver the value that consumers have come to expect even as it avoids harming the environment.
  • Supply Chain Management: Showcase the brand's dependence on a vulnerable natural resource to convincingly authenticate its commitment to protecting that resource — just as General Mills did by highlighting its reliance on ingredients produced through the work of pollinators.
  • Waste Reduction: Get clever and find ways to vividly evoke the thematic unity shared by even a generic waste-reduction strategy and the distinctive character of the organization's brand and business.
  • Charitable Partnerships: Identify partners with missions that resonate with the nature of the company's business and brand. The açai that Sambazon used in its products came from the Amazon region, allowing the company to undertake an organizationally relevant initiative on behalf of the area's environment.

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