Only a year ago, on the front end of the pandemic, there was a theory that people would be too wrapped up in self-preservation and dire economic consequences to care much about sustainability. Some green marketing pitches got delayed. Others just got ignored. But the funny thing is that consumers didn’t really seem to lose interest, and as this April — Earth Month — has kicked into gear, green marketing has never been stronger across a wide range of product categories.
Procter & Gamble, Unilever and L’Oréal all have pledged to make dramatic decreases in their use of plastics. Unilever, for example, has moved to 100 percent post-consumer plastic in packaging for Dove in North America and Europe, and plans to be “plastic-neutral” — collecting at least as much waste plastic as it uses in new packaging — in India by year end. L’Oréal’s Garnier launched an entire Green line of skincare products with earth-friendly ingredients last year.
Brands like Unilever’s Seventh Generation and P&G’s Native have launched plastic-free lines with paperboard packaging for household products and deodorants. P&G, which has long argued for the disposable side of the net-environmental impact of disposable diapers, nonetheless also acquired the Charlie Banana line of reusable cloth diapers marketed to “joyous eco-warrior” parents.
Any such list is by its nature incomplete because, essentially, everybody is pitching green products harder these days. And it boils down to the fact that not only do consumers increasingly want them, but investors, sensing the growth of the sentiment, increasingly are paying attention too.
Data from Omnicom Media Group’s BERA purpose analytics tool show that perceived positive social impact of brands impacts their results, says former P&G chief marketer, now consultant, Jim Stengel, who co-developed the tool with the agency.
“That’s one mega-trend here to stay,” Stengel says. He cites the outlook of Emory professor Omar Rodriguez-Vila, recently interviewed on Stengel’s podcast, that while sustainability “used to be outside of what we see as the value equation for consumers” and left to public relations and or supply chain people to deal with, now it’s seen as central to the work of brand marketers and general managers.
“Sustainability is now being seen by companies and consumers as part of the reason you buy the brand, much like product superiority or the level of service the brand gives or the pricing,” Stengel says. That’s evident in the newest marketing program for Tide, which is making an environmental proposition a core marketing plank for its flagship brand, enlisting Ice-T and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to sell people on the idea of washing their clothes in cold water. For the effort, the company and Saatchi & Saatchi, part of the multi-agency Woven Collaborative, went so far as to play with Tide’s sacrosanct orange bullseye logo for the #TurnToCold effort, making it blue.
While Tide might have been about “superior whiteness” years ago, being the best brand for cutting down greenhouse gases by letting you wash in cold water could be a winning proposition today.
“It’s our hope that a campaign like #TurnToCold paints a clear picture in the mind of our consumers that Tide is not just a superior product, but also better for people and the planet,” says Aga Orlik, senior VP of P&G North American Laundry Care. “If consumers see a load of laundry done with Tide as a load of good, then that’s a win for us.”
P&G is also committing to a 10-year effort behind its goal to have 75% of Americans wash their clothes in cold water by 2030—up from 40% to 45% today. That would be the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road.
Sure, there’s a sales pitch. Tide says the technology it’s incorporated into all its detergents over the past two decades mean they clean as well in cold as the leading bargain brand in hot water. But the biggest change may be that it takes green marketing from a topic relegated to press conferences and events to a central part of Tide marketing. And the P&G brand is hardly alone.
Investor interest drives choices
Shifting green marketing to the center of brand marketing is hardly confined to packaged goods.
General Motors’ recent commitment to offer 30 new electric vehicles by 2025 and go all-electric by 2035 is a major case in point. Much of what’s driving that is seeing the massive market cap of still relatively small competitor Tesla. GM stock is up about 30 percent since it made the January announcement of its plans.
Such commitments make a difference to people like Stengel, who says he recently bought his first American-made car since the 1990s—a new Ford Mustang electric vehicle. But the growing interest of investors can’t be overlooked.
Paul Polman, retired Unilever CEO and now chairman of purpose-focused CEO advisory organization Imagine, in a recent interview with Bernstein Research analyst Bruno Monteyne provided insights into how much investor mindsets have changed on environmental issues since he joined Unilever in 2008. His outspoken environmental focus was met by investors with what could best be described as a mix of smirking acquiescence, indifference or outright hostility. Some privately and derisively nicknamed Polman “Captain Planet.”
“When I started 10 to 12 years ago and tried to put this into practice at Unilever, there were a lot of skeptics and cynics because we simply didn’t have the data, we were not able to explain how it actually would link to value creation,” Polman said. “But I think we’ve come a long way in the last 10 to 12 years.”
A difference in outlook on sustainability was a key issue that led Unilever to reject overtures to merge with Kraft Heinz in 2017, Polman noted. “We have enough evidence now that myopic focus on shareholder value, frankly, doesn’t bring you the long-term returns.”
That research firms like Bernstein—which now has an Environment, Sustainability and Governance director—routinely do events and reports around sustainability issues helps point out how much things have changed, though profitability and sales growth still drive valuations more for consumer companies.
Monteyne says the investor community is still probably divided into camps. About 25 percent feel sustainability is the right thing to do and drives higher long-term returns in combination with a good commercial strategy; 50 percent who aren’t so sure but are “powered ahead by the fact that there is huge interest from clients to invest in ESG funds”; and 25 percent “are probably doubting the whole thing but are staying quiet right now.”
Consumer shift drives retail focus
Among all the holidays that drive special retail displays and online events, Earth Month traditionally hasn’t been one. But that may be changing. Online retailer Zulily has opened a Sustainability Shop for Earth Month with a collection of environmentally friendly products ranging from a Vera Bradley travel bag made from 24 recycled water bottles to a Green Toys tea set made from recycled materials.
“Amidst the pandemic when online shopping has been at an all-time high, environmental considerations are top of mind,” says Megan Marshall, director of brand marketing at Zulily. “In a survey we conducted with Engine Insights among a sample of 1,002 parents of children ages 0-17 from February 16-21, 2021, 90 percent of parents say it is important that their deliveries come in as few packages as possible when online shopping. A similar survey by Zulily in 2020 found that just 67 percent of parents said the same.”
In speaking with its own customers, Zulily says most believe that companies should help consumers be more environmentally responsible and that they would buy eco-friendly products if they were less expensive. Zulily also found 94 percent of parents say being eco-friendly is important to them, and 85 percent wish their environmental footprint were smaller. But they would like to be guided more gently in making those choices, as 43 percent of parents said they’ve been told by their children they were doing something bad for the environment, and 38 percent said they’ve been shamed by other parents for not making sustainable enough choices.
Much as people might feel ashamed for their environmental impact, that doesn’t really work well as a marketing approach, as P&G and Saatchi see it. So, Tide’s pitch for getting people to wash their clothes in cold water centers is based in part on the money they can save — $100 annually on average on their utility bills — by washing 75 percent of laundry loads in cold.
“We didn’t want it to feel preachy,” says Saatchi Chief Creative Officer Daniel Lobaton. “Going the entertainment route unlocked that for us, because we had these celebrities in the shoes of everyone else receiving this message, asking the same questions anyone might have.”
Limits of good intentions
Grove Collaborative, an online retailer focused on selling earth-friendly household products, has seen sales soar during the pandemic and before, now in the “hundreds of millions” according to CEO Stu Landesberg, with sales last year doubling on its top product lines and rising 20 percent to 30 percent on its slower-growing items.
Good intentions about cold-water washing or no, Tide isn’t carried by Grove. But eco-focused brands of big players, like Unilever’s Seventh Generation and SCJohnson’s Method and Mrs. Meyers, are. While Landesberg gives big established packaged-goods marketers credit for progress and participates with many of them in the Plastics Working Group that Grove has established to reduce use of plastics in packaged goods, he believes the big players generally aren’t going far enough.
Landesberg says there isn’t enough capacity for recycling plastics in the world to meet the ambitious goals companies have set for eliminating use of virgin plastics and petrochemicals in their packaging. Bernstein’s Monteyne makes a similar point, noting that there’s not enough capacity for recycled polymers even to meet the European Union’s 2025 targets and that capacity would have to grow 9 percent to 41 percent annually for four years running for that to happen, with no signs such investment is occurring.
Simply eliminating plastic packaging in favor of paperboard, aluminum or other materials, as Grove has with its Peach house brand, is going to be required to truly get to goals of no new plastics, Landesberg says. But big companies are constrained by their heavy investment in existing plastic packaging lines that will be costly to replace.
That’s the biggest impediment to making one of the most positive changes CPG companies could make — eliminating plastic waste. Marketing may be the easy part, which is one reason he believes Tide’s effort on cold-water washing may work.
“If there’s anybody who’s good at getting consumers to prefer something, it’s big CPG companies,” Landesberg says. “They have an incredible ability to educate consumers over time.”
What’s missing in some cases is the will, and the growing interest of consumers in eliminating plastic waste may make the investment in retooling to non-plastic alternatives inevitable. If anything, the pandemic has made people more aware of plastic, paperboard and all other sorts of packaging waste, Landesberg says.
“Being stuck in our homes all year,” he says, “we’re actually also stuck with all our garbage.”