One of the top speakers at the latest BAM Marketing Congress listened to the name of Samira Brophy. There, the London-based Creative Excellence Director of Ipsos described the rather worrying results of a large-scale meta-analysis of 200 sustainability ads from a total of 15 countries. After her presentation, she went into further detail for us about the ingredients of a wisely successful strategy.


The researchers looked for ads that had one of the three ESG pillars (Environmental, Social, Governance) as a starting point. In practice, 'E' and to a lesser extent 'S' then dominate, but that does not make the study any less interesting.
Especially since the study's parameters were anything but out of the blue. In fact, the research team looked for brand attention and the robust Creative Effect Index. The fact that these are used to measure all types of ads allows for comparison and provides a solid scientific basis.

Sustainability clichés
As an advertiser, does talking about sustainability provide an advantage in terms of effectiveness? That was the first question Samira Brophy and her colleagues tried to answer. "The answer is no: there is no boost in attention or creative effect. More than that, people just pay less attention to sustainability ads." "Why is that?" was a logical follow-up question. "What it turns out: many messages are very generic, and the creative ability to make sense of the issues and integrate the brand into that story is too low."
Brophy knows where it often goes wrong. "Brand advertisers traditionally focus on three elements: explaining the context, explaining the brand category and highlighting the brand. The sustainability category is often presented by showing windmills or happy farmers. But every brand in each category does the same thing. As a result, you end up with a series of sustainability clichés and the audience is logically reluctant to pay attention to them."
Another pitfall has to do with the messages themselves. "Many brands invite people to participate in some kind of collective struggle. However, such ads are less effective than messages in which a brand is open and honest and talks mainly about the steps they themselves are taking. You do versus I do, as it were."

Be yourself and build on your brand positioning
Following on from this, it is important for companies to hang their sustainability ads on their brand positioning. "Otherwise, your messages will come across as forced and inauthentic, even if you stay true to your known style in terms of execution," says Brophy. Be yourself, in short, is the motto. "Many companies are too quick to come up with some claim, around which they then develop a whole campaign. But you must first take ten steps backwards and do the required strategic work. Conduct a category and brand audit, so you can check whether you are responding to a real need and want to bring a coherent story that appeals to people."
The good news: as long as the link between brand positioning and the sustainability story is right, it doesn't really matter what type of company you are. "During the last Super Bowl, mayonnaise brand Hellmann's launched a successful campaign around food waste. Since the brand revolves around food, it builds on that with that sustainability angle and stays true to its positioning and heritage."

The success recipe for super-effective creativity
So what are the ingredients of a creative sustainability ad? "One of the problems in our industry is that there is not really an accepted definition of creativity. My colleague Adam Sheridan did a great analysis around that with the book Misfits. In it, he not only discussed the many possible interpretations, but also tried to formulate an answer by consulting the public. With 'a fine experience that generates value' as the outcome."
To obtain concrete tools that marketers can really work with, thousands of ad ratings were then scrutinised as part of that analysis. "These turned out to fall into three clusters, with creative experiences and creative ideas but also an interesting third pillar around empathy and belonging. If you manage to link the latter elements with creativity, the messages and that creativity become super effective. And the same goes for sustainability ads: mix the fresh with the familiar, and that's it."

Advertising as a strong social force
A lot of companies are on the eve of taking their first steps into the world of sustainability advertising. Them Samira Brophy is happy to give them some tips. "Make sure the foundations around sustainability are right at company level, and then think about the communication you can hang on to it. Then work out a distinctive but also relevant core message." In this way, advertising and sustainability can perfectly go hand in hand. "Advertising is a very strong and influential social force. If we want to make sustainability aspirational, bad ads are out of the question."

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