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3 ads about sustainability that got it right (according to data)

Communications will be more effective when they reach the heart, not just the head,

Videographer with camera

Much has been written about how our environment will benefit from the current COVID-19 crisis — the world is witnessing the power of mass behavior change, brands are remembering the importance of leading with purpose and Mother Nature is getting a few months to recover. While I believe these lessons are valuable, realizing a fully sustainable and circular economy remains an uphill battle. 

Many soldiers must be enlisted in this fight, including the private sector. These companies, large and small, have the responsibility to reimagine their products and operations and share compelling stories with customers that change behaviors. As any sustainability marketer can attest to, this is easy to say, but much harder to do in practice — sustainability is a fundamentally complex issue to explain. We must get past these communication challenges, however, if we want to successfully build on the momentum gained by our current global health crisis and advance the environmental movement forward. 

To help brands — which are so critical to this fight — better communicate their sustainability commitments, my company, QuickFrame, researched what made for effective marketing in regards to the environment. 

We used our machine learning-powered content analytics tool to analyze the recent video output of the 100 most sustainable corporations ranked by Corporate Knights, uncovering data-driven strategies that most successfully captivate viewers. Our research revealed which brands got it right and why. Let’s take a look at three examples.  

Example 1: H&M

Why it works: The tone is purely positive

Over the last several years, H&M has spent more time highlighting its "Conscious Collection," which comprises products that contain at least 50 percent sustainable materials. 

During a campaign for its fall edition in 2019, one of the global retailer’s most popular content pieces was a short video that highlighted the positive side of durable, re-wearable clothing made from recycled PET bottles. 

Many brands would have fallen into the temptation to go negative and highlight our plastic pollution problem so they could then explain they were part of the solution. Our research reveals, however, that videos positively depicting nature’s beauty and innovative climate change solutions were 50 times more effective at driving views than negative messaging or even a combination of positive and negative.

Example 2: Google 

Why it works: It makes climate change feel close to home

Climate change affects the entire world, yet many immediate threats feel distant to a brand’s viewers, thus creating a perceived gap between the climate issue at large and problems that impact us day-to-day. 

QuickFrame’s analysis uncovered that brands that successfully bridged this gap did so via shots of recognizable locales. Images of cities and oceans, both of which are relatable to the average human, heavily outperformed their more distant counterparts such as glaciers and power plants. 

In December, Google released a video about its Environmental Insights Explore tool and chose a creative approach that discussed how the technology was helping cities such as Dublin, Mexico City and Melbourne design solutions for sustainable transportation, building emissions and solar power. 

By keeping the visuals focused exclusively on cities, Google was able to show off the product while making sustainability feel more relevant to viewers. Remember, the more realistic and approachable the settings are, the more likely consumers will be to tune in. 

Example 3: Unilever 

Why it works: It embraces story, not statistics

Unilever recently launched Growing Roots, a snack brand that donates 50 percent of its profits to urban farms. While Unilever could have launched this new venture with a communications campaign laden with statistics about agriculture, food inequality and urban sustainability, it chose to highlight the initiative as part of its "FutureMaker" series, which focuses on the stories behind the movements improving our planet. 

Statistics are an incredibly important part of understanding the environment: They communicate changes in sea level and reductions in emissions, freshwater usage and other important factors impacting the world’s climate. 

But while these elements are relevant for sustainability professionals, they leave customers lost — marketing is about emotional storytelling, after all.

Our analysis revealed that videos with statistics ("30 percent emissions reduction") had six times fewer views than those that were purely narrative. Though sustainability marketers may want to highlight quantifiable plans to build their credibility, communications will be more effective when they reach the heart, not just the head, as this Unilever example demonstrates.

The private sector plays a critical role in the fight to meet emissions reductions targets needed to avoid the worst environmental effects. The lion’s share of this effort requires setting ambitious goals and clear pathways toward achieving them. However, effectively sharing these strategies and the progress being made with audiences is an equally important part of the equation. 

If brands can change consumer behavior around which products they choose to buy, they will positively change consumer attitudes toward the environment. As a result, the environmental movement will continue to gain the momentum needed to protect our planet and our way of life. 

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