Sustainability communications: Getting them right.

Talk by Mike Longhurst, Director of Corporate Communications, MCCANN WORLDGROUP EMEA


In the area of new approaches to communicating about environmentally and ethically sustainable strategies the most relevant change that is happening is people are starting, but only starting, to get it right, rather than get it wrong. I hope that doesn’t offend too many well-intentioned people, but communications in this area have been hampered by unrealistically low budgets and strategies that failed to recognise limitations and work within them. What do I mean by this? I mean that over many years there have actually been a vast number of campaigns on sustainability issues, pointing to more sustainable behaviours and lifestyles, but these have tended to be fragmented and short in duration. Organisations have failed to work together to ensure that basic requirements of any effective strategy are met and that is to be visible enough and engaging enough to make a difference.

The campaigns have often not been created by advertising professionals and have suffered from a very old-fashioned and ineffective model of how to communicate. The content and style has often been dictated more by what the interested and informed parties funding the projects were bursting to say, than what the disinterested and uninformed consumers reluctantly needed to hear. There has been a tendency to accuse, exhort or often just confuse, rather than engage, inform and persuade. Targeting of advertising has been sloppy and imprecise and failed to recognise very different levels of awareness and engagement by consumer segments in the issues being promoted. Thus advertising on these issues has often done what manufactures would almost never do and that is to try to talk to everyone at once with one voice. In short they have tended to please the already motivated and leave the uninformed cold.

The positive change that I see comes from the factor that sustainability insiders most fear; the arrival on the scene of big brands with their advertising agencies. Sustainability issues are starting to become both a threat and an opportunity for brands and this is naturally pulling them into communications on these themes. I have to say in general they seem to be doing it quite well, but we are right to remain vigilant against “greenwash”. Environmental communications codes are in place in many countries from International Chamber of Commerce down to local self-regulation organisations like those in UK, France and others. We need to continue to challenge any exaggerated or unworthy claims to protect these issues as ones that have the potential to help consumers differentiate between brands.

This is the transcript of the talk by Mike Longhurst at the Luminous Green Symposium in 2007

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak here today. Talking about sustainability isn't my day job, but it's rapidly becoming it. I'm here to interface with people and organisations such as yourselves and carry your messages back to the advertising community and the clients that we serve. I come today as a representative of the European Association of Communication Agencies, to bring you some of our thinking surrounding communication and sustainability.

One of the many positive things that came out from the World Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 was a cry, mandate and an appeal to governments, organisations, NGO's and brands to use communication to tackle sustainability issues. It's good to see there has been a steep increase in communications since then, but naturally not all of it has been as good as it might have been. And that is where I want to draw some lessons today. In my line of work it's generally not considered good to criticise, but in a short time-frame like today, critique works well to get the point across. I'll show you some good and much less well developed messages. I'm going to start rather controversially by lumping the sustainability together with public service advertising, because this is the sort of genre in which we come across these issues most often in advertising. Much of communication in this genre in the past has been rather unsuccessful and it's important for us to understand some of the reasons for that.

One of the problems is that we treat an audience as a single group, that is either totally uninformed, or really as informed as ourselves. It often assumes too much interest, involvement and knowledge on the part of the listener. It tends to be too linear in what it wants to communicate, in that it tries to dictate to people what they should do, rather than let people conclude what action to take, based on what we communicate to them. Often it seems to be talking to political bosses, or to the involved organisation themselves. In advertising we all see more adverts than any consumer out there…

Now… imagine, you are sitting in your living room, enjoying your favourite football game, or soap-opera, when suddenly this advert comes on… See if you can fathom what on earth this is about! [Shows a clip]. Now I know what they're on about and you know what they're on about, but to be perfectly honest, that is a totally chaotic way of telling it to someone who has no clue of what they're on about. The editing is an absolute chaos and the argumentation is no argumentation at all.

Here is another one from the Ministry of transport, which is a poster and a press ad, which tries hard to get my attention but again it's too chaotic. How can I read that, if I drive by, or ride a bike? It seems that the makers of this could not decide whether to inform, or if it is just meant to create traffic to the inevitable website. But please appreciate that you have to raise an enormous level of commitment and interest on the part of an uninvolved consumer, before they will click thru to your website, to find out what they are supposed to find out. Yes, WE will click through to it, because we are all interested, but this is not yet the case for the man in the street, unfortunately.

Why do I have to get three layers down, through the television, the print, the website, to find my reward? For example, this might work better - 'These simple steps can save me a 100 pounds'. You tell me that in the television ad and you've got me interested. I shouldn't have to dig three layers down to get that message. This is what we try to teach people, how to think like a consumer and bring that kind of messaging forward.

Another problem is why am I getting this message from so many different sources? In Europe there are about a thousand campaigns on these subjects, most of them very short lived. At some point in the future people will have to club together around mainstream themes, and then you take this theme and develop it in your own area. Then you start ahead of the game, because people already understand some of what you tell them. They will have already learned it to some extent. There is unfortunately too much village mentality for a lot of this advertising. Even the EC has flatly refused to cooperate with the UN environmental programme (UNEP) in putting their ideas together, because they wanted their own.

It is easy to sit around in a meeting and come up with what you want to say to people. It is much more difficult to look at it from the consumers perspective, what interests them, what does it mean to them. We use a lot of dialogue with consumers when we develop a campaign, we listen to them, try things out, ask them what they think, refine the message, ask them again, until we're both happy.

In any campaign like this there will likely be no more than four identifiable consumer segments; People who are informed and engaged (that's us); people who are concerned about it, but are not active yet; people who are aware but unconcerned; and finally, the unaware.

Most of us here might think that the big numbers and large percentages are around the top of this list (relatively informed), but realistically, they are probably not. You'll be surprised about how big those groups are at the bottom (the uninformed). Normally, at least half and maybe two-thirds of them in some cases. It is easy to be successful with the top part. We get lots of nodding heads there and a good round of applause, so if we are not careful, we spend a lot of time communicating with those people, and preaching to the converted. Realistically, we are now just communicating with people that are the tip of the iceberg and we need to do our homework to get beyond them.

People want the government to deal with these issues - 'What the hell do we elect these guys for if they can't sort out things like that? Why are they bleating to us about it? Just let us to go on and lead our lives, will you?! If someone has allowed this product to be on this shelf, it cannot be wrong for me to buy and consume it, can it?' That is just simple consumer logic; 'If it was wrong, it wouldn't be there, right?' We must work within that framework. And to companies and manufacturers, they might say - 'Don't use me as the person who decides what you should be making!' We call the majority of the consumers 'hedonistic idealists'. They want to consume in the same way, but they also want the problem getting sorted. This creates opportunities for brands. The opportunity to solve the problem without any real change in cost, or downsizing behavioural change to them. That is the soft option for the brands if you like.

What climate change and other issues needed, was wider publicity on more realistic budgets and a better media environment. Gorbatchov some years ago held a conference in Lion and he put the media on trial and said - 'Why don't you talk about these issues?' And now they do, but bad news for Mr Gorbatchov, it wasn't his conference that did it, it was the tsunami and other natural disasters that made them do it. And now in many countries, including the USA, it is a high profile thing. It dreadful for those who suffered, but it is great for communications, because we now have something to hang things from. We now have a level of awareness out there that we didn't have five years ago. It needed better consumer understanding and insight, better professionalism and planning, and a more direct linkage to solutions for consumers. Just appealing to consumers is not enough, you have to offer them solutions.

Although some people are afraid of greenwash and the issue getting hijacked by the brands, I think we need to welcome a higher profile and help brands with sustainability messages, which is a strategy we decided to apply, as far back as 1999 with the UN Environment Programme. UNEP called the advertising community in, because they already have a level of credibility among consumers and they can persuade the consumers a hell of a lot easier than anybody else can. So when Virgin with its millions of customers decides that it is worth their while to promote issues of reducing carbon emissions, that has to be a significant message, doesn't it? Do you know how many years we have been to the International Union of Public Transport and how many years we have been pleading with public transport authorities to do this sort of thing?! And how few of them are doing it, and now an entrepreneur like Virgin goes out and does it. And lets make sure all the safeguards are there to make sure this is not greenwash! The advertising community in most mayor countries has legislation in place to stop greenwashing. The international chamber of commerce has too. This type of self regulation solves problems much faster than any law would have done. Retailers all over the world have taken to these issues because it doesn't cost them any money, just choosing different producers and - this can be a positive point of differentiation for them.

I'm not lecturing you about what you should do here, I'm lifting the curtain and showing you what we say to our clients is the best practice, so you can see the kind of thing we try to communicate.

Here are a few pieces of advice:

  • Define the problem before you decide on how to communicate about any solutions. You take the pile of things you wanted to say and then start sifting through it to get to a simple message.
  • Make use of every medium in the way it works best, bringing more detailed information down the line.
  • If there is a previous theme that you can hang your message onto, do it.
  • To be succesful in getting the sustainable issues into practice we need the support of the big brands that people trust.
  • We need producers and suppliers to give consumers more options for sustainable consuming and to sell them effectively.
  • We can't wait for consumers to start pulling these products through by demand, or to undergo fundamental lifestyle changes of the kind we are talking about alone.

These issues deserve the best communication platforms we have. We should not be using scarce funds to experiment to work out how advertising works. If there is something worth communicating about, then the issues that we are discussing today are it. If more people hear about them and understand what's at stake, we have done our job well.


Mike Longhurst is Senior Vice President at McCann-Erickson EMEA, responsible for Business Development and Corporate Affairs. He is a member of the Executive Board of the European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA) and has personal responsibilities for sustainability issues. In this role, Mike was a co-author of the Advertising Sector Report to the World Summit in 2002. He is a member of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Advertising Forum, representing the European communication agencies and has spoken at over 50 events around the world. In 2003 he also led development of an Ethical Code for advertising agencies which can be found at


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