When you think of climate solutions, marketing probably doesn’t cross your mind.
You may even think it’s part of the problem — feeding the consumerism machine that is devouring our world. And you’d be right. But I think there’s potential to use the power of marketing to drive action on climate change.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about this because I sit in both these worlds.
I am a lifelong environmentalist and climate advocate and I work in a climate-related organisation. And by trade, I’m a marketing and communications manager. So I read a lot and talk a lot about both climate and marketing, separately and together.
This article is based on my observations and thoughts on the topic and is for anyone who either works in climate and thinks we can do a better job of communicating, or works in marketing and wants to be part of the solution.
What too many environmentalists think about marketing
I get why a lot of environmentalists are distrustful of marketing — honestly, I used to think like that too.
When I was younger I used to think all marketing and PR was about lying, manipulating and tricking people, so I had a visceral distaste for it. If you told me in university I would work in the sector I would probably have been disappointed, thinking it meant I’d sold out on my values. I did want to work in communications, but I saw that as very different.
Turns out they are not very different at all.
I’ve noticed lots of environmentalists seem somewhat allergic to using marketing or even just the basics of effective communication to get their message across.
It’s usually one of these two things:
- Either they have a very bad impression of marketing and PR so they don’t want anything to do with it. They think any attempt at making a message more palatable and compelling is just spin that sullies the sanctity of the message.
- Or they righteously think that we shouldn’t need to dress it up in any clever way because the message is just so important that people should just listen and act on it naturally. Any rationale person would, right?
Of course, the problem with that is that people are just not very rational.
Marketers know this, and that’s why they’re much more persuasive than most environmentalists. But more on that later.
Marketing is more than just selling sh*t, it’s about behavioral change
What even is marketing anyway?
There are loads of definitions floating around, here are a couple.
Marketing refers to any actions a company takes to attract an audience to the company’s product or services through high-quality messaging. Marketing aims to deliver standalone value for prospects and consumers through content, with the long-term goal of demonstrating product value, strengthening brand loyalty, and ultimately increasing sales.
Marketing refers to activities a company undertakes to promote the buying or selling of a product or service.
Most definitions are very business focused. But organisations that are not businesses do marketing all the time:
- Governments and councils do marketing to change public behaviour
- Non-profits and charities do marketing to get donations/funding and change behaviour
- Political parties and politicians do marketing to get donations and votes (which is just a specific change in behaviour)
The main thing is that marketing does way more than just ‘click this ad’ and ‘buy this product’.
The job of a marketer involves changing people’s perceptions and mindsets, selling a certain lifestyle as desirable, and changing behaviour in someway. This could mean buying something or donating, but it could also mean voting, volunteering, sending a letter, or dropping off food to a soup kitchen. The possibilities are practically endless.
We could really use some of that marketing power in the environmental movement. If you think about it, it’s frustrating that so much talent and skill is being wasted on things that are part of the problem, when they could be helping with the solution.
Marketing as it exists now vs what it could be
There’s so much potential, but yes — as it exists now marketing is part of the problem.
Currently, the vast majority of marketing is used to promote products and brands, the vast majority of which have polluting, unsustainable production practices. They probably treat their workers badly and have human rights abuses in their supply chains too. And they may not even be that beneficial to the consumer. (In fact they may have just manufactured the need for the product by drumming up the audience’s emotional insecurities, a net negative for their mental health!). Before long, they’ll be tossed in landfill where their resources are lost and their carbon leaks out into the sky as methane gas.
Feeding the take-make-dispose treadmill, which really only serves to create profits for the shareholders of the companies. What a waste!
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Here’s how marketing can be used positively:
- Social marketing: Using marketing principles and techniques to sell an idea, make more sustainable lifestyles enticing and desirable, and drive non-commercial actions like volunteering, voting, direct action, etc.
- Green business marketing: Marketing for more sustainable versions of products that have a genuine need— the idea being that people buying this product is a net climate win because otherwise they’d be buying a worse one instead.
- Transformational business marketing: Marketing to drive the take-up of products that are central to the climate transition and make an outsized difference, such as home solar panels, battery systems and heatpumps, etc. This goes further than just cutting emissions from the people who buy them. Popularising these solutions has a catalytic effect, driving demand and bringing down costs, creating a virtuous circle that helps accelerate the transition to a zero carbon economy.
Working with human psychology, not against it
Marketers know they need to tap into human emotions to be successful.
What if the reason why consumer messages in ads are so much more seductive than most environmental messages, is because the former actively works with human psychology, and the other works against it, expecting us to fight uphill because it’s the right thing to do?
What would a marketer’s approach to environmental communication look like?
I’ll be writing more about this as I research the topic more.
This article is also published on Medium. Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.