M&S and Channel 4 call on marketing industry to help them take sustainability mainstream

Marks & Spencer and Channel 4 have both admitted they are struggling to bring the idea of sustainability to life for consumers and are asking the marketing industry to help them find the “creative breakthrough” that takes it mainstream.

Speaking at the IPA’s event on Conscious Capitalism this week (11 May), Mike Barry, the director of M&S’s Plan A sustainable business, said the role of ad agencies will have to change from coming up with ad campaigns to really understanding a business and how it communicates in a new world where consumers are increasingly interested in brands that have social purpose.

His comments came after he admitted M&S has done little marketing of its sustainability, instead choosing to promote it mainly through its stores and staff.

“Advertising agencies won’t be doing the same things in the future,” he said. “We’re looking for solutions to how to communicate in this new world and we are using out stores and staff more and more.

“A solution is critical, we need a better way to communicate to bring the worlds of ethics and desirability together.”

Mike Barry, director of sustainable business, M&S

Freya Williams, the North American CEO of sustainability agency Futerra, said the reason sustainability has not gone mainstream yet, either with businesses or consumers, is because too many brands are only marketing at the 16% if the population that are “super greens” rather than the 66% that make up the “middle greens”.

“We have to make mainstream consumers want sustainable stuff. Too many brands just use a polar bear or a green leaf and think that communicates sustainability but it doesn’t appeal to the mainstream. Take Tesla, it wants to make the best car not just the best electric car and focuses its marketer on the car’s attributes, not its sustainability,” she explained.

Channel 4’s CEO David Abraham agreed, saying that sustainability needs a “creative breakthrough” that can bring it to life.

Having a political voice

Brands also need to start speaking up about issues, according to Barry, who cited the example of M&S and a number of other brands turning up at the UN climate change summit to encourage world leaders to take action.

“At M&S we spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to talk about. Brands have to have a political voice, but that is political with a small p, not talking about political parties but issues that concern your customers,” he said.

And Williams said that while a lot of brands are stuck between greenwashing and greenhusting, there is a risk in not talking about issues affecting society because consumers increasingly want to buy from companies with purpose and employees to work at them.

“There is a risk in not doing anything or not talking about what you are doing, then people underappreciate your efforts. Brands might as well get called out for trying to do something,” she said.

Businesses are also concerned that sustainability will impact their bottom line, but Barry said its efforts brought M&S cost savings of £160m in 2014.

“We don’t want to be famous for having one or two sustainable products, we want the whole brand to be sustainable and we are driving that in every category incrementally.

“We are still at the base of Everest, not the top. We are only 20% of the way through this journey.”

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