Our timing is all wrong when it comes to sustainability

Our timing is all wrong when it comes to sustainability
Opinion: Strategy Leaders

All the exciting stuff happens in much smaller windows of time. The same applies to sustainability: having a single message all year round won’t work.

When it comes to audience trends, the worst thing a planner can do is use yearly averages. It’s the quickest way to kill any insight.

Whether you’re exploring people’s interest in travel, their propensity for new tech, the chances of switching jobs — or how likely they are to get divorced — yearly stats tell you almost nothing. They dilute all the nuance, leaving you with an unhelpful, binary output. Above index or below index. More or less.

All the exciting stuff happens in much smaller windows of time. Like a hormonal teenager, people’s interests swing wildly through the course of 12 months. Try selling a winter jacket in summer, or a BBQ on Christmas Eve. The product is right, but the timing is all wrong.

The same applies to sustainability. We’ve made a mistake by looking at this topic as a single choice. Do people care about sustainable brands (yes or no)? Has interest changed in the past year (more or less)?

What chocolate teaches us

Interest is changing constantly. Once we start recognising that, we can tease out the rich insights that shape how brands need to act.

Take food, for instance: the desire for sustainable snacks never stays still. One minute they’re up, the next down. Overall, we see the big moments are generally between September and December, with another strong bump in early Spring. This feels counter-intuitive, until you look at the data.

Most searches for sustainable food are related to chocolates and desserts (34% of total search traffic). Meat-free options are further down the pecking order (26%). This is a great example of data challenging our preconceptions. If we really want to save the planet, perhaps we should talk less about Meat Free Mondays and talk more about Vegan Sweet Sundays.

But the key is timing. People crave chocolates in the autumn and again at Easter. We’re less interested in them during the heat of summer, or while we’re battling through our New Year’s resolutions. Understanding these changes will ensure the message lands.

When it comes to automotive, we see a similar pattern. At a macro level, there’s a spike of interest in April and September, as new models are announced, but what’s really interesting is the surge of lower-funnel questions.
More than four in 10 (41%) searches are linked to consideration factors such as features and usage. While one in five (22%) are intent signals including price, test drives and leasing options.

This is critical for car brands to get right. By all means have a sustainability campaign that runs the full length of the year, but make sure you dial up the details at key moments.

One final example, from the world of fashion. Year on year interest in sustainable fashion has grown by 43%. But again, the yearly figures barely scratch the surface of what’s really happening.

What we see is a focused desire for sustainability on staple pieces of clothing. From T-shirts and jeans to jumpers and jackets. Eco clothing is now a key factor in people’s decision-making process. But item interest is determined by the weather. During the summer, over 90% of searches are related to shirts, shorts and summer tops. While the winter sees a huge spike in hats and coats. People don’t want to just hear about sustainable fashion, they want to hear about specific items, at specific times of year.

It’s critical that fashion brands are aware of this, and get their eco-credentials into the product pages, rather than trapping them within a separate ‘purpose’ campaign. The more direct and tangible you are, the better.

Move with the times

Let’s be honest, sustainability has a lot to contend with in 2023. The cost-of-living crisis is squeezing people’s wallets, which is forcing people to focus on price rather than purpose.

But the data shows that interest for sustainability is growing in significant ways. Critically, this interest is directly linked to sales. Most of our data (see our Insights Accelerated report here) shows that sustainable searches are happening lower down the funnel, at the point of consideration and intent.

This is great news for marketers looking to justify their purpose campaigns. By linking them more directly to point of sale, it will better land with customers and the CFO.

But I’ll say it again: the key is timing. Having a single message all year round won’t work; we need to follow people’s seasonal interests and adapt accordingly. It makes planning a little more complicated, but infinitely more valuable.

Marcos Angelides is chief strategy and innovation officer at Publicis Groupe media agency Spark Foundry

Strategy Leaders features on the Thursday edition of The Media Leader‘s daily bulletin with thought leadership, news and analysis dedicated to excellence in commercial media strategy.
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