Ethical consumerism, once considered the preserve of sandal-wearing vegetarians dressed in Hessian shirts, has entered the world of mainstream marketing. For those involved in creating sales promotions to shift products, this offers fertile ground for creativity. Rather than adopt the same old cut-price offers, here is a way to tap into consumer trends that also builds brand values.
Barely a day goes by without a retailer or brand owner launching an initiative with an environmental or ethical dimension. Last year, Sainsbury’s attempted to make a statement about the impact of the 13 billion plastic bags used by UK consumers each year. Against the background of calls for a tax on plastic bags, the chain launched a must-have fashion accessory in the shape of a long-lasting carrier bag created by “Queen of bag land” Anya Hindmarch, bearing the words “I am not a plastic bag”.
According to research conducted by Charles D’Oyly, managing director of Valassis, eco-friendly promotions can be successfully combined with traditional promotions. Less than 20% of consumers preferred “promotions involving competitions and prizes to money-off promotions,” in a survey last conducted last summer, while 44% said they did not have time for on-pack competitions because they were too complicated to read.
D’Oyly says: “Consumers strongly prefer straightforward money-saving offers or coupons to prizes and gifts. As consumers’ environmental awareness continues to rise and marketers are increasingly challenged by the obligation to satisfy a conflicting consumer demand for both desirable and eco-friendly gifts, the various simple money-off techniques are even more likely to remain the people’s favourites.”
Getting a credible position
On the face of it, there are plenty of successful examples of the link between marketing and good causes. Brands may have discovered that giving their products an ethical dimension can make them popular with consumers and give their sales a temporary boost. But turning that short-term uplift into a real and credible positioning takes more than a few kind words stickered on to product packaging.
Victoria White, head of activation at integrated agency Tullo Marshall Warren, says Sainsbury’s Anya Hindmarch “green bag” promotion was well-intentioned and raised the issue of the deleterious impact of using so many plastic bags. But she points out that there were negative sides as well. She says: “Not all the publicity was good publicity. The media had a field day highlighting the fact that the bags were made in China from un-organic cotton without the scrutiny of any recognised organic or fair-trade body. Also, with only a limited supply available, the bags quickly sold out and 80,000 shoppers made pointless journeys to Sainsbury’s, creating pollution on the way. Some of the lucky people who did get one then placed them in plastic bags to stop them from getting dirty.”
She believes this demonstrates that any company creating an ethical or environmental promotion must think the strategy through from beginning to end and “ensure that their ethical credentials are totally watertight.”
According to Daniel Todaro, managing director of field marketing agency Gekko which specialises in the consumer electronics area, electrical goods manufacturers could do more to enhance their green credentials and at the same time offer environmentally concerned consumers the chance to fulfil their wishes. For instance, the introduction of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directives from the European Union – which are being implemented in the UK – offer manufacturers the chance to show they are concerned about recycling. This contrasts with more superficial promotions. As Todaro says: “A true eco-warrior does not need to wear labels or carry a bag to display their commitment to ethical issues. To appeal to those who are serious about the environment, brands should invest the cost of the promotion in worthwhile causes such as carbon offsetting or recycling schemes,” he says.
He points out that while the electronics industry has the WEEE directive and energy ratings, other sectors of the market could benefit from similar schemes. “Trade in offers, recyclable packaging and less waste are what the true environmentalist wants to see; these are the issues that need to be addressed,” he says.
Another opportunity for packaged grocery brands lies in environmental labelling such as indicating the size of a product’s carbon footprint. The initiative, run by the Carbon Trust, shows shoppers how much carbon has been emitted in the manufacture and transportation of the goods.
Participating companies agree to cut their carbon dioxide emissions within two years, or risk being thrown out of the scheme. It is being tested by a handful of big name brands such as Walkers crisps, Boots and Innocent Drinks. However, some wonder how much consumers understand about CO2 emissions and whether it will enhance their propensity to buy the products. It is an initiative which is calling out for imaginative sales promotions to give it a kick start.
There are risks with any green or ethical initiative, as the Sainsbury’s green bag promotion demonstrates. Brands invite scrutiny from the media, which could descend into scepticism about motives. Brand owners need to get their credentials straight before they launch sales promotions based on ethical issues.