Tapping on his experience in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Advertising Advisory Committee and as an executive board member of the European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA), Longhurst shares his perspectives.
On corporate sustainability trends
From a European perspective or from the position of global companies, procurement is driving sustainability progress – probably more than anything else. People who once thought consumer demand was going to pull sustainability through are completely wrong.
Although consumers say they want to buy more sustainable goods from more sustainable companies, they demonstrate no ability to recognise which are more or less sustainable. Research says consumers just associate sustainability with the biggest names they know. If a brand has a high profile, it will appear to have a high profile for sustainability. That’s the frustrating thing.
Where we see sustainability making the most progress is through the pressure that corporations put on each other. In the UK, and to a lesser extent in Europe and in the US as well, the middlemen – the retailers – are putting huge demands on their suppliers.
Walmart was one of the most hated companies amongst many pressure groups, but changed their attitude about five years ago. They probably got the sustainability message earlier than many others in the US. Their sustainability programme probably did a lot to change US government policy, because once they’d done that, the legitimacy of the Bush government’s stance against things like the energy policy was blown away. If Walmart could stand up and say “we believe in this”, that probably was the tipping point in the US.
In the UK, Marks & Spencer’s “Plan A” campaign and corporate platform is not just about saving energy and working more efficiently; it’s about them exerting huge pressure on suppliers, and then giving leadership to consumers. It won’t work without both ends of the chain, so procurement – certainly through retailers – has been very important.
Now we’re also seeing sustainability emphasised by government procurement. It’s going to become impossible to deal with major governments in the world unless you go through a fine procurement filter which checks out your sustainability.
Because procurement policies are getting tougher, companies are being forced to develop more sustainable products and to project that image to their customers, the big corporations, the retailers, the B2B targets. Some companies already have products which are sustainable but a reputation that’s the opposite, and they approach agencies to help them work on their sustainability reputation with regard to B2B and influencers, even if not with consumers.
On Planet McCann and how it works
McCann was involved with the UNEP and industry leadership programmes since a dozen years ago or so, while most of the other agencies came [into sustainability branding] around 2007 when they saw more money being spent in that area, and formed specialist agencies to deal with that.
By then, we had decided we didn’t need to form specialist agencies because the issue became mainstream. Our clients don’t want to be told that to do anything on sustainability, they’d have to talk to our small specialist units. What they want is to be able to talk to their our account people. The extra expertise that’s needed comes from Planet McCann; if they need help, advice, or anything, they come through me and I either provide it myself or put them in touch with others in 40 different countries who can help.
Planet McCann set out to be mostly an internal resource. It’s not a profit centre but exists to serve all of our profit centres and clients. The only direct client it has ever had has been the UNEP, where we produced advertising for them, but otherwise our clients are our own agencies. We have a global online system – a “neural network” – that helps pull people with relevant interest areas into special work groups. These groups form as they’re needed, and Planet McCann is one of them, with no overheads, no cost. Sometimes clients don’t even know that we’ve been involved, and that’s fine.
On working for the UNEP
I worked closely with the UNEP from 1999 through to about 2006 and we ran their industrial liaison session with them recently in Paris as part of the build-up to the world summit next year.
The essential campaign we’ve produced for them, in cooperation with the International Association of Public Transport (UiTP) in Brussels, was on why people should use public transport to help the environment. Both the 2005 and 2008 campaigns became the world’s most extensive advertising campaigns, probably in more countries than any other campaign, because they were created on a royalty-free basis. The 2005 one was probably the world’s first international free-to-air TV commercial. The one we did in 2008 ran on 20,000 screens in Beijing during the Olympic games, in all their tube cars, trolley buses and things like that.
How one good ad multiplies its own positive impact
The best sorts of things start to happen when people accept the higher-level logic of what’s going wrong in the world and why it should be put right. The public transport ad we produced was simply offering a solution. The world, the environment, has got problems, and public transport is part of the solution – use more public transport.
That was targeted not just at consumers but also at governments to make them more aware of the need to fund public transport and promote it. It was aimed at public transport operators themselves to make them aware of this sustainability platform on which to promote themselves to consumers; many were locked into thinking only along price and routes.
The ad was a catalytic thing. It was flexible and translatable into about 40 different languages – not by us, but the backing tracks and studio elements needed were given to whoever wanted to produce their own voice-overs and titling locally.
In a recent agreement with our parent body, we’ve added on an anti-greenwash role. We don’t force people to send things to us to approve but we can provide copy advice and help, which our agencies in Malaysia, Bangkok and Beijing have used. They’ve sent me things asking: “Is this the right way of saying it, is it fair?” And we give them counselling on that. It’s totally voluntary but an important resource to have.
The trend in sustainability communication
What we’ve seen over the last six to eight years is the gradual evening out of the balance of influence between corporate affairs people and product-driven marketing departments. The message has come down from the top that sustainability is a priority, empowering corporate affairs people to exert a much stronger sustainability focus on research & development, and on marketing. So in recent years, more and more marketing people have been drawn into supporting sustainability [instead of focussing primarily on product cost and functionality attributes].
Ultimately we’re going to see more and more product differentiation coming from sustainability aspects and those differences are going to have to be promoted through advertising. That’s where the second coming of sustainability communications is going to rise from.
Read about Interbrands’ Best Global Green Brands 2011 report to see how green branding and actual sustainability practices line up for the world’s top brands