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Time for Marketers to get serious on climate

by Jake Dubbins - May, 2021

Published in Creativebrief’s BITE Thought Leadership

We are 6 months away from COP 26. For those who do not know COP 26 is the United Nations’ global conference on climate. It is taking place in November in Glasgow and in Italy. Countries are being asked to redouble their efforts to reduce emissions aligned to the Paris Climate Agreement as currently we are not on track to reach the target of keeping temperatures to 1.5 – 2 degrees above 1990 levels.

Here’s what the UN Secretary General had to say last week: ‘I am deeply worried about the lack of progress on climate adaptation. People are already dying, farms are failing, millions face displacement’

The problem with the climate has always been that most people are genuinely too busy in their own lives to look beyond the end of their road. ‘If farms are failing then why can I buy anything I want in Tesco?’ one may reasonably ask.

The gunboats dispatched to Jersey this week give a clue to challenge the belief of endless abundance and convenience. The argument between the French and the British about fish is not one about sovereignty, it is one of food scarcity. The simple fact is that if there were enough fish, then there would be enough to catch in the waters off Normandy, Cornwall and St Helier and there would be no need for protests, blockades and the Navy.

Climate is also complex. It encompasses everything. How we heat our homes. What we wear. What we feed our families and even our pets. How we travel to work. Our holidays. Our money and pensions. Everything.

Pretty important for brands and advertisers then. Up to now though brands’ focus on climate, with some notable exceptions, has largely fallen into the bucket labelled ‘greenwash’.  ‘Clean diesel’ from Volkswagen, Saudi Aramco supplying the environmentally ‘cleanest oil’ (yes really!) and last year Italian oil company Eni made history by being the first in the country to be prosecuted for greenwashing. The company was fined €5 million (US$5.94 million) for claiming that its palm oil-based diesel was ‘green’ in an advertising campaign.

Shell also found out in November 2020 what people really thought when they asked the question on social ‘What are you willing to change to reduce emissions?’ Surprisingly a few people took issue with the question and Shell was bombarded with angry and incredulous responses.

But while some brands tinker around the edges and scramble to craft their sustainability messaging, fundamental shifts in legislation, the financial markets and consumer beliefs are taking place around them.

LEGISLATION 

Last month Britain enshrined into law a new target to slash emissions by 78% by 2035. This was a world leading position but not widely reported. Hot on the heels of the UK, this week Germany accelerated their plans to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by setting a new goal of reaching “net-zero” by 2045. Other countries are making similar plans in advance of COP 26 but COP is not the end, it is really the beginning. Once agreements are made and targets set, then the work begins to actually meet those targets. This is the defining challenge of the twenties and indeed of our generation.

What does this mean for brands?

Well no-one really knows it poses some serious questions because for the first time, in the UK target, aviation and shipping are included.

·   Will foreign holidays become too expensive?

·   Will food produced locally become cheaper than food imported?

·   Will clothing made in Asia become more expensive?

·   Will the consumer choice that supermarkets have built their business model on become untenable?

In some sectors the future is clearer than others. The UK government has passed into law that from 2030 we will not be able to buy a new petrol or diesel car. Not only does this mean that electric vehicles will become mainstream very quickly, it also means that the value of the petrol or diesel car you are currently driving will likely drop off a cliff sometime soon.

Media Bounty are currently embarking on a long term integrated brief with New Automotive, to accelerate the transition to electric cars. The research organisation uses data to help the government and industry prepare for the transition so that the UK becomes an electric vehicle leader. This ensures drivers’ needs are at the core of policy recommendations, and real change is enacted. The job is to convince more drivers to embrace electric, encourage the industry to reskill and highlight the massive opportunity that lies ahead. Because the fact remains that in order to deliver on our own carbon budget, even the 2030 ban is not enough. We need to start replacing the miles driven by petrol cars with miles driven by electric cars much earlier than that.

Car brands that get this right will do very well.

It was a huge deal that in the US, GM ran a superbowl ad, not for an individual model, but for the brand featuring Will Ferrell, Awkwafina and Kenan Thompson.

The country that is synonymous with the term ‘gas guzzler’ is putting EVs squarely at the forefront of popular culture. 

FINANCE

Whatever the moral imperative to actually preserve the only planet we actually live on, the depressing reality is that people need to make vast sums of money to do just that. Unless you are Elon Musk who is placing his bets on Mars.

Fortunately the financial markets are recognising the impending dichotomy. Either we burn the trillions of pounds of fossil fuels currently in the ground, realising their value but boiling every living thing in the process. Or fossil fuels stay in the ground, become largely worthless, and we keep temperatures below 1.5 – 2 degrees.

Money can be made elsewhere.

Last month those massive tree huggers, JP Morgan, announced an aim to lend, invest and provide other financial services for up to $2.5 trillion for companies and projects tackling climate change and social inequality over the next decade. Green initiatives will account for $1 trillion of that total – the largest environmental, sustainable and governance (ESG) financing target announced by a U.S. bank to date.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR BRANDS?

The value of brands that are over reliant on fossil fuels will decrease, probably by significant levels. Entire brands could become stranded assets. The change accelerated by the Covid 19 pandemic lockdown has already seen stranded asset high street brands like TopShop snapped up by Asos, while Debenhams found no buyer at all.

Another Media Bounty client Make My Money Matter, is calling for the trillions of pounds invested in pension funds to be moved from fossil fuel companies and companies involved in deforestation to ethical funds. Pensions is a category that no one is really interested in so it was a surprise to us following research that we conducted with YouGov that 37% of UK adults are worried about where their pension is invested. Over 19 million people. That is a lot.

Do you know where your pension is invested? Do you want your money invested in companies chopping down forests? Thought not. Most people don’t.

Now imagine if you and a fraction of those 19 million people asked your employer to move your money to an ethical fund. Not only would you sleep better at night but a lot of high carbon reliant brands would lose quite a lot of their value and low carbon brands would probably be worth quite a bit more.

THE CONSUMER

Now where is the consumer in all this?

Some may have you believe that most consumers will only buy from brands that match their ethical values. This is clearly bollocks. I absolutely love the surf brand Finisterre, a proud Cornish Bcorp, but I also have a couple of pairs of Nike Air Max. Why? Because I like them and had some similar when I was a lot younger than the ageing 43 year old that looks back at me on endless zoom calls. We are all hypocrites in one way or another. Although to be fair to Nike, last month they committed to 2030 reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2030 in their owned or operated spaces, and by 30 percent across our extended supply chain. Is it enough? Probably not, but the direction of travel is unequivocal.

In a huge piece of research called ‘Britain Talks Climate’ conducted by Climate Outreach in 2020 it was revealed that 87% of the British public is worried about climate change. In fact, 61% of the 10,000 people surveyed were either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ worried about climate change.

Now this does not mean that rushed consumers are going to read the sustainability strategy of Sarsons Malt Vinegar before chucking it in the trolley in Tesco but these numbers indicate wider behaviour change.

Launching The Meatless Farm in 2019, we knew from our research that people were already looking at a cutting down on meat. The brand did not need to wag its finger telling people why they should ‘save the planet’ by eating more plant based food. From tasting the burgers right at the start of their first TV campaign we saw exponential growth through supermarket listings and food service by focusing relentlessly on taste.

Last year the brand raised another $31 million to fund its continued expansion.

MARKETERS

Where does all this leave marketers? Well according to the WFA’s recent research, quite far behind. Most marketers do recognise they have a role to play – 95% said their department could make a difference to the sustainability journey. Yet only 10% claimed to be ‘well advanced’ in that sustainability journey. A huge 50% of marketers said their team was ‘about to start’ or still taking ‘first steps’ when it came to their sustainability journey. 

Some marketers are scared of the climate question. It is big, complex and messy. But it is really important to meet people where they are. If you are on the start line, then getting help to start can be a big and massively rewarding step. If you are on the journey, speeding up that journey could mean building long term value into your brand a lot quicker than if you stayed at the same pace.

We are 6 months away from COP 26 where large parts of the economy, society and indeed our everyday lives are up for negotiation. Marketers need to re-evaluate their role in this very fast changing climate, if you will excuse the pun. This is beyond the shallow purpose arguments. It’s not even about doing the right thing. It is a legislative, commercial and consumer imperative.