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Global warming solutions. Protections of human rights. Transparent supply chains. Enhanced privacy protection. Corporate advocacy.

There is no doubt that consumer goods companies are rethinking how they do business. A growing number of companies in this space are taking action, investing in setting and pursuing ever more ambitious sustainability goals.

For companies to be successful in the long term, they need to be able to convert these efforts around sustainability into tangible business results. Simply put: They need to be able to sell sustainable products to the mainstream consumer.

A piece of fascinating global research published by Unilever in 2017 reveals that a third of global consumers are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.

This is both good and bad news.

On the one hand, these numbers demonstrate that a large portion of global consumers are buying sustainable products from brands seeking to increase their positive social and environmental impact. On the other hand, it shows that the remaining 67 percent of consumers have not yet been reached.

How do you target the remaining 67 percent in order for them to buy from brands that are doing social or environmental good?

According to the same study, more than one in five of the people surveyed said they would actively choose brands if they made their sustainability credentials clearer in their marketing. This represents an untapped opportunity of 966 billion euros out of 2.5 trillion euros of the total market for sustainable goods.

In order to reach this segment and untapped revenue, brands and companies need to shift consumers’ purchasing patterns when it comes to sustainability. They need to rethink sustainability communications at a brand level and more specifically strive to reach the vast majority of consumers with persuasive marketing campaigns around sustainability. The secret? Making a sustainable product or lifestyle desirable and “in” by applying key learnings from traditional marketing to the field of sustainability.

The environmental, societal and ethical benefits of a product need to appeal to consumers’ personal values and positive emotions, through what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “esteem needs,” i.e., the desire for reputation or respect from others. Status is a powerful tool to compel behavior in the marketplace. It should be strongly considered when promoting sustainable goods and services. Similarly, companies need to demonstrate “how” the sustainable product or brand fits perfectly in a lifestyle desired by the consumer, as this lifestyle fit creates an aspiration for the offering.

Indeed, we care a lot about how we are perceived within social groups and want to be or look like those we admire. If those who we admire — influencers, public figures etc. — show that they consume sustainable products or lead a sustainable life in a way that is appealing to the vast majority of consumers, there are chances that we, consumers, would want to replicate that action or lifestyle. And that translates into sales. Just think of Revolve, the fashion and beauty e-retailer. Rather than using traditional marketing tactics such as ads, Revolve regularly hosts getaway trips for its influencers.

Luna Atamian Hahn-Petersen

Luna Atamian Hahn-Petersen 

Throughout the trips, influencers post images of themselves enjoying experiences wearing Revolve clothing, using the hashtag #RevolveAroundTheWorld. The content posted portrays a life full of travel, beauty, fun, friendship and fulfillment, which appeals to Revolve’s main consumer segment, Millennials. By buying Revolve clothing, customers not only buy clothes, they also buy a piece of the lifestyle that they aspire to. One of Revolve’s past trips to the music festival Coachella resulted in 3 billion impressions from just one weekend. The hashtag was used more than 6,000 times in the first weekend alone, which translated into sales numbers.

This does not only apply to the glamourous world of fashion. Take paper towels and napkins products for example. Procter & Gamble and three of its brands — Bounty, Charmin and Puffs — hosted a tree farm visit for influencers in October near Little Rock, Arkansas. The influencers had the unique and exclusive opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at a tree farm, to meet the faces and hear the inspiring stories behind the production of paper products. It was also an opportunity to learn from leading organizations including Rainforest Alliance and WWF about the importance of buying FSC-certified products to help protect the environment. The influencers then shared their experience on different social media channels including InstagramYouTube and a blog post.

That’s why influencer marketing — taking advantage of the charisma, influence and reach of a public figure — must be utilized to get a brand or a product’s sustainability message to target audiences. The numbers speak for themselves: about half of women make purchases due to influencer posts, according to several marketing studies.

For this to work, brands need to carefully vet and select the influencers they choose to work with, making sure their brand messaging is aligned with the influencer’s values. Most importantly, it is crucial that the sustainability messaging is not just about messaging but that it truly reflects the company’s strategic efforts. In other words, communicating about sustainability without having a proper sustainability strategy as a foundation, will certainly be counterproductive.

Luna Atamian Hahn-Petersen is a sustainability consultant, working at Salterbaxter in New York, specializing in helping apparel and luxury companies to develop sustainable brands.

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