Stepping up on sustainability: marketing’s critical role in behaviour change

Google UK’s head of strategic insights, Gerald Breatnach, believes the marketing and advertising industry has an essential part to play in helping to engage the world in our journey towards a sustainable future

Stepping up on sustainability: marketing’s critical role in behaviour change

At Google, we believe we have a responsibility to protect our planet. Since our founding in 1998, we have worked to build sustainability into everything we do. In 2007, we were the first major company to become carbon neutral. In 2020 we launched our third decade of climate action. It’s our most ambitious yet and includes our goal to operate our data centres and office campuses on 24/7 carbon free energy by 2030.

We also know it’s critical to support our partners. Through participation in Ad Net Zero, and in our work directly with brands and agencies, we want to help the marketing industry play a powerful, positive role in delivering the change that’s needed.

Sustainability has been rising fast up the boardroom agendas of our UK customers and is becoming central to the role of marketing leadership. As one CMO told us recently, “It’s not about whether to support our corporate sustainability strategy, it’s about how.”

Some big questions remain, though, about marketing effectiveness, greenwashing and on how to integrate with traditional marketing KPIs – and all are against a backdrop of economic uncertainty affecting people and businesses. So, we’ve partnered with Ipsos to combine Google data analysis with qualitative and quantitative research to try and understand the people of the UK and the role of marketing to drive behavioural change.

We found people across all ages and backgrounds care deeply about our planet’s health, especially when it is felt to have an impact on their own lives, or the lives of their children and grandchildren. A huge majority (81%) of UK adults agree we’re heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly. That’s up from 59% in 2013.

The economy is top of mind, but 78% of people agree that ‘climate change is as serious a concern as the rising cost of living’, and this does not change significantly across income levels. Searches on Google for sustainability have more than doubled since 2018, despite the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis being front of minds in the UK.

Yet, when you ask what actions people are taking for environmental reasons, it’s the low effort, low cost and relatively low impact activities that dominate: 85% are recycling, 72% are using energy efficient light bulbs and only 25% or fewer say they are eating a mostly plant based diet or buying energy from renewable sources.

We found a lack of understanding of the options and their impact was a major barrier to motivation. Sustainability is a dauntingly complex topic. Across 16 categories, an average of 42% said they didn’t know what it meant for brands to be sustainable, and 45% said they didn’t know if their choices were sustainable. One respondent was typical, telling us: “I do all my recycling properly and I try not to buy things wrapped in plastic. I’m doing my part… what else can I do?”

The marketing and advertising industry has a critical role to engage and to help build on the knowledge of what’s possible – and how it connects to the bigger picture. Perhaps even more importantly, we can enable – making it easier to choose a more sustainable option by changing the choices facing people as they decide on products and services.

Our research found people were not willing to compromise on product quality or price, but that when given equivalent options, sustainability could provide the casting vote. In most categories, and with most audiences, presenting sustainability as a co-benefit along with core category benefits will be more effective than a sustainability focus alone. We also found simplicity was key, and transparency and accuracy has to be foundational to any communications.

The good news is that research participants evolved their thinking even over a matter of weeks. Learning more about the topic, and taking small steps, can help people overcome a sense of despondency or cynicism and develop a sense of agency.

So we know this is a journey. And it’s one where we want to actively help. This is also why we’re supporting the new Campaign Ad Net Zero Awards and look forward to celebrating our industry’s first steps in recognising some of the great work already done in helping address the climate crisis.