The Marketing Week environmental issue

They may not know who he is, but a substantial majority of consumers are right behind Sir Nick Stern’s conclusion in his recent eponymous report on the impact of environmental change. For business, as for the rest of us, the cost of apathy is going to exceed the cost of making changes.

Over two-thirds of the consumers interviewed by BrandIndex for this special edition of Marketing Week now believe that the “greenness” of a brand is a major constituent in their decision to buy it.

As the survey shows, that’s bad news for certain categories of brand that don’t seem to be pulling their weight, or feel they would find it so burdensome they would suffer a commercial hernia doing so. Big Oil is up there at the top of rogues’ gallery; British Nuclear Fuels (consumers are not sure about the clean-fuel message being relentlessly peddled by the Blair/Brown administration) gets a starring role, Land Rover too; and, of course, the airlines. As an aside, note how much of a consumer discount being a US brand brings with it: tribute, perhaps, to George W Bush’s six years in the White House.

Not surprisingly perhaps, those who have assiduously cultivated their sustainable image over the years are now reaping the dividend. At the top of the list are Ecover, The Body Shop, and Whole Earth. But there’s hope too for latter-day converts. UK retailers, in particular, seem to be playing a skilful game in winning the hearts and minds of consumers. Tesco, criticised by Greenpeace on its Tescopoly website for promoting too many car journeys, is well up in the listings. While Marks & Spencer is clearly reaping some early benefit from its “Plan A – because there is no Plan B” campaign. P&G will take comfort from the high ranking of Ariel, but should be concerned about the “bad boy” image of Pampers. Similarly ambivalent is the attitude to BNFL – but at least there is a platform to build on. And talking of platforms, the corporate recasting of BP (Beyond Petroleum) by Lord Browne has succeeded in giving it a uniquely positive ranking among the oil companies.

Most brands occupy an awkward middle ground. They fear the horrifying costs of a knee-jerk reaction to environmental alarmism, which could subvert their business model. Yet they are happy to oblige when the gesture (for example, the rapid reduction of plastic bags in circulation) will have a clear, communicable benefit for their customers. But, make no mistake, there are no easy stopping-off points on this “journey” (as Alan Mitchell puts it); brands will be committed to the long haul.

James Murdoch, chief executive of BSkyB, for one is under no illusion what this challenge is going to mean for business. “If we are going to engage consumers at large in tackling climate change, then we are going to have to offer leadership of a different kind,” he says. What he means is that brands will have to inspire consumers with a vision of their products and services which is not merely piously energy efficient but engages their self-interest in an innovative and seductive way. Marketers, he believes, must work much harder on the creativity of their message. Yet the prize is great: ” The role for marketers has never been so compelling nor significant in delivering real and long-lasting benefit.”

Stuart Smith, Editor

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