On the first day of spring, commuters in lower Manhattan’s new transportation terminal stopped to gawk at actor Matt Damon and a piece of interactive art.
“The Water Clouds,” by Stella Artois, was part of the commemoration of World Water Day and highlighted the number of people in the developing world who had gained clean water through the brewer’s “Buy a Lady a Drink” initiative. Damon, co-founder of the promotion’s charity partner, nonprofit Water.org, was on hand to open the exhibit. Passersby could buy a limited-edition Stella chalice to fund five years of clean water for one person, plus each purchase entitled the buyer to add a bubble to the art installation.
The event was all part of an activation that included outdoor advertising in the station, cross-promotion with retailers in the terminal’s shopping concourse, and sponsorship of a documentary on the global water crisis airing on the National Geographic channel that day.
“Buy a Lady a Drink,” now in its third year, is one example of how businesses are internalizing sustainability and including it in their experiential marketing. At a time when climate change is a subject of heated political debate, brands need to mainstream sustainability, experts said. Even as executives face tighter scrutiny to their bottom lines and returns on investment, consumers—especially the coveted Millennials—demand their experiences include recycling, energy efficiency, and a small carbon footprint.
“In the old days, it was a badge of honor. ... It was way more obvious marketing around events,” said Mikey Hersom, president of Havas Sports & Entertainment. For example, a decade ago, an agency organizing an event could brag about running its electrical equipment off solar panels or recycling its event banners. But today, they don’t talk about it.
“The mindset is that’s something we need to be looking at anyway, not something special,” Hersom told CMO.com.
‘Doing The Right Thing’
Sustainability is one of the pillars of Stella Artois parent Anheuser-Busch’s Better World corporate social responsibility platform, said Katja Zastrow, VP of corporate social responsibility-Better World.
“There’s an expectation that companies are doing the right thing,” Zastrow told CMO.com. She noted Anheuser-Busch has reduced water usage in breweries by 47% over the past 10 years and partners with River Network on an annual river watershed repair around its facilities for World Environment Day in June, when employees join local community groups in cleanups.
“There is a natural integration between brands and what consumers see and doing good. It doesn’t have to be one or the other,” Zastrow said. The Stella activation is a good example of how sustainability can be well-integrated with branding efforts, she noted: “It goes back to consumers’ expectations; they see the brand is doing the right thing.”
Large companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Unilever have a track record of minding sustainability in their efforts, but as eco-friendly Millennals continue their ascent, more consumers are demanding increased accountability from all brands, as well as more transparency for their efforts.
As president of Ignition, an event marketing agency that became part of Havas, Hersom said his agency promoted sustainability in events a decade ago by buying carbon offsets to reduce the footprint of its tour vehicles, promoted using sustainable and recycled materials in collateral and premiums, and created tools such as a carbon footprint calculator to help clients offset their emissions. The movement gained strength in the early 2000s, but it crested and dropped sharply once the recession of 2008-09 took hold.
“When the downturn hit, nobody cared anymore. All they cared [about] was, ‘Is my business surviving?’” Hersom said. “The entire mindset of our country and the world fundamentally shifted.”
But post-recession, consumer awareness and demand has led to a mainstreaming of practices, he added. Companies have realized that profits can be improved with sustainable practices. In fact, marketers often refer to the “triple bottom line” approach of “people, planet, and profits,” a three-legged stool that only works if profits can be improved by sustainable practices, Hershom said.
Large marketers such as Wal-Mart, for instance, are forcing changes, such as reducing packaging, improving product sourcing, and reducing energy use, because it saves money and helps the bottom line, and they’re sharing that message with consumers. Hersom noted even during the recession, Coca-Cola Co. continued efforts to make its bottling plants more water-efficient.
“It will never go all the way back to the beginning. If ‘A’ was basically nowhere, and the height of sustainability and greening was 2006-08 ... I don’t think it’s gone back to ‘A’ again because of all the things that have happened,” he said.
No Longer Neutral Ground
As the economy emerged from recession, brands were no longer targeting sustainability to the urban, NPR-listening kale-eaters. Mass-market names such as Unilever and Wal-Mart have taken up the sustainable brand challenge.
Super Bowl 50 is one recent example of a collective effort with sponsorship platforms and brands that “set a whole new bar in event management regarding sustainability,” said Cassie Hughes, co-founder of Grow Marketing, an experiential marketing agency with clients including Nike, Target, and Levi’s.
Grow Marketing designed an effort for health-care provider Dignity Health, which was the brand’s first experiential marketing activation. Taking off from the brand’s positioning of “Humankindness,” it included a sustainably-built structure with multimedia exhibits and activities where visitors could take a “humankindness pledge” and share a picture on social media. The nine-day effort resulted in 12 million earned media impressions and a 77% increase in social media engagement. The host committee recognized the effort with its Super Bowl City Net Positive Award for Design Economy.
Consumers crave a deeper emotional connection in a digital world and seek meaningful experiences, noted Forrester analyst Anjali Lai. Introducing a new report on the “values-based consumer” at the recent Consumer Marketing Forum, she explained that “marketers can’t afford to remain silent about their values.”
Forrester’s research found 52% of consumers now consider themselves environmentally conscious, compared with 42% just two years ago. Another report, from Unilever, found one-third of consumers worldwide pick brands based on their environmental and social impact.
“To the consumer, there is no longer a neutral ground,” Lai said. She noted Forrester found companies that embrace their values are four times more profitable. Unilever just reported its Sustainable Living brands grew 50% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 60% of its growth in 2016.
Many companies are happy to share that message in their consumer experiences. “If you ever go on a brewery tour, everybody there is such a culture of saving electricity, saving water,” Zastrow said. “It’s kind of an inherent piece of what we do, and it goes straight to the brand and consumers, to ‘Buy a Lady a Drink.’”