5 ways to improve sustainability messaging in a tough economic climate

5 ways to improve sustainability messaging in a tough economic climate
Brands should tap into sustainable behaviours such as batch-cooking

With consumers having to make purchase decisions influenced by seemingly opposing economic and environmental forces, brands need to carefully balance their messages.

Since the UK became the first major economy to pass a net zero emissions law in 2019, sustainability has been a strategic imperative for brands and businesses.

But in the midst of a post-Covid-19 cost-of-living crisis, and with the country falling into recession, consumers are having to balance purchase decisions that are influenced by seemingly opposing economic and environmental forces.

To help brands with these complexities, Reach and PHD have spent the past four months getting a better understanding of what consumers are thinking and doing in an insight project called Paying the Price?. The research has resulted in a set of considerations that brands should be making in their sustainability communications strategies.

1. Balancing purpose and brand benefit

Brands need to get the balance right between delivering a clear sense of purpose when talking about sustainability and addressing consumers’ cost-of-living concerns in their communications.

The consumer reprioritisation that we’ve seen suggests that campaigns that lead with sustainable benefits at the expense of value benefits will prove less motivating than brands that dial up how they are offering value to consumers.

This in no way means brands should divest in sustainable initiatives, but they need to be balanced with broader brand-based messaging.

For many, sustainability feels complex and hard to relate to in day-to-day life: 30% of the population “don’t understand the exact benefits to me personally of being environmentally friendly”.

People are becoming more introspective, increasingly focusing on the here and now.  Both the economic and environmental crises are causing anxiety, but cost-of-living stress is more prominent.

We’ve found that this is leading to “cognitive exhaustion”, as people become overwhelmed by juggling their financial and sustainable priorities. Ultimately, the most pressing concern will always win out.

2. Frugal innovation

People value brands that are recognising the financial and ethical struggles they are facing and taking action to provide longer-term and accessible sustainable options.

Our research found that, in the past year, the need to economise has led to the rise of inadvertent sustainable behaviours, such as batch-cooking, buying pre-loved items and waste reduction.

The sweet spot for brands is in sustainable initiatives that are designed to support customers financially — a concept sometimes referred to as “frugal innovation”.

Examples include Sainsbury’s offering recipe suggestions on how to use leftovers and retailers like Schuh and John Lewis & Partners offering rewards in return for recycling clothes and shoes.

3. Positive framing

Today, sustainability behaviours are still often framed as a denial of pleasure and abundance, fuelled by language that is all about “stopping”, “reducing”, “cutting down” and “sacrificing”.

Within the context of an uncertain and pessimistic macroeconomic climate, now is a good time to add some energy, positivity and warmth into brand communications.

Many people have made sustainable changes over the past year, but they don’t consider those changes that way. This perception gap exists because the main motivation for making those changes was to save money. For example, 79% have turned to putting on more clothes rather than turning the heating on, but only 28% consider that action to be good for the environment.

Those struggling with the high costs of living are also more likely to be looking at money-saving and greener behaviours than those less affected, who are making more “enjoyable” changes out of choice rather than necessity.

Brands have the opportunity to tap into this “accidental sustainability” trend by first focusing on the financial benefits of sustainable behaviours. This is is very different to “if you do less of this, you’ll save more money” messaging.

4. Think local

Our research found that the cost-of-living crisis has focused people’s attention inwards as they look closer to home, while increasingly looking at the here and now.

Aligning sustainability initiatives with the UK, or even more locally, will resonate more strongly. Indeed, 50% say they are more interested in environmentally friendly initiatives in their local area than initiatives globally.

5. Trusted media environments

We know trust (in brands, government and institutions) has been in decline for some time, but cost-of-living pressures have fed into this sense of mistrust, with accusations of big brands profiteering.

Simultaneously, misinformation and conspiracy theories continue to dog the push to net zero and sustainability communications. In our study, 28% feel the evidence to support climate change is unreliable, rising to 35% among 18- to 34-year-olds.

In this climate, the importance of brands aligning themselves with trusted media environments is greater than ever.

The cost-of-living crisis has resulted in consumers reassessing their priorities and focusing on the most visible and timely concerns where their spending is concerned.

Sustainable actions remain important, but brands that recalibrate their communications messaging to reflect these shifts stand a greater chance of resonating with consumers who are focused on the here and now.

Jenny Shevlin (left) is head of planning and insight at Reach and Louise Twycross-Lewis is head of insight at PHD

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