December 12, 2023

Why marketing matters when it comes to climate

When flying helicopters, if an engine fails while too low or too slow, a crash is inevitable.

This combination of height and speed is called a “Deadman’s Curve,” a situation that is unrecoverable no matter how skilled the pilot is. Inaction against climate change risks an equivalent situation for the entire world.

While climate change denial is now mostly over, influential voices continue to argue that future advances in technology mean that we don’t need to act now. That’s a risky bet to take given current emission levels and additional headwinds coming our way.

So, if most people support action, why isn’t it happening? A big reason is that the framing of the conversation has been wrong—a challenge that can be tackled by today’s leading marketers.

Here’s how.

Why worry?

To start — let’s set the scene. While it’s tempting to believe that future innovation will solve today’s emission challenges, there’s good reason to be wary.

Tipping points:

The IPCC has identified nine global and seven regional tipping points that if triggered are likely permanent even if temperatures return to historic norms. Individual tipping points may begin occurring within the next 20-30 years, for example returning Europe and the East Coast of the US back to the ‘little ice age’ experienced throughout the 16th-18th centuries.

An aging, shrinking population:

In 1940 there were 42 workers per retiree in the US, today the ratio is 3-to-1 and by 2050 it will be 2-to1. The implication: a shrinking tax base burdened by the social security and medical costs of an aging population.

Reversal of globalization:

A belief that globalization has driven inequality, the supply chain logjam during COVID, rising tensions between economic blocks are all factors driving a reversal of globalization. That will increase costs as we prioritize resilience over efficiency.

Debt burden:

US debt accounted for ~120% of GDP, with the Congressional Budget Office estimating that by 2053 it will have risen to 192%. That will require an ever-growing proportion of taxation to pay interest on that debt. That will crowd out public investment in services and investment in the private sector.

Taken together there’s a material risk that either we won’t have funding to develop the technology that could address climate change or that, as a society, we won’t be capable of moving fast enough to deploy it. Even with successful deployment we would have already passed a point of no return that causes harm to ecosystems and millions of people. This means that we can’t leave this as a challenge for the next generation to solve.

Why marketers?

We’re not scientists, technologists, or politicians. What can a discipline grounded in storytelling do to help?

A lot, as it happens. Because framing matters.

A recent report from Potential Energy highlights that 71 percent of people across 23 countries, including the United States, agree with the statement that, “I support immediate action by the government to support climate change” [Potential Energy Coalition]. Despite this, support for tangible policy action has often been lacking.

The report highlights two messaging themes that could change that. Often policies are negatively framed suggesting the removal of a benefit versus being positively framed as an upgrade. Secondly, policies are 12 times more popular when framed as protecting the planet for the next generation than to create jobs. This is the creative art of building shared belief and action, a skill at the heart of our discipline.

To start—is your climate position clear?

Marketers can begin in their own backyards, accelerating their organization’s climate ambition and action with a reframing of “why climate.” For most organizations, this means a critical shift from climate as either a purely societal imperative or a burden of reporting requirements to one of commercial opportunity. At Lippincott, we’ve helped an increasing number of companies understand the role that climate should play in their brand and marketing agenda in context of their broader business strategy. From this work, two dimensions to consider have emerged alongside four strategies associated with those dimensions, based on a company’s starting point.

“Now is a pivotal time to establish clear leadership as most industries will accelerate their actions in the coming five years.”

Climate ambition is the aspirational leadership role a company wants to play moving forward in making progress relative to their industry. Take Plug’s vision of providing access to affordable and reliable green hydrogen energy, or Walmart’s ambition to become a regenerative company. Climate action defines what’s being done today to integrate climate benefits holistically into core operational practices, not just one-offs. For example, Nucor produces steel with 75 percent less greenhouse gas intensity than today’s global average, while Allbirds is already over 50 percent of the way towards its goal of cutting their carbon footprint in half by 2025 and near zero by 2030.

Now, consider where your company sits, or wants to sit, against these two dimensions. It’s critical to establishing authenticity and making progress, no matter where you are in your journey.

01 | Solidify climate leadership

If you’re a company like Nucor or Allbirds that leads on both action and ambition, then solidify that leadership through your brand and marketing. Being recognized as acting early and setting the standard is enduring, FedEx still gets a brand lift from its creation of the express delivery market in the ‘70s. Now is a pivotal time to establish clear leadership as most industries will accelerate their actions in the coming five years. Secondly, while reputation on climate is rarely the primary driver of brand preference, when all else is equal it helps break the tie and will likely become more prominent, particularly among B2B. Lastly, being known as a good actor with authentic ambitions and actions builds goodwill which creates brand resilience when inevitable mistakes happen.

02 | Commercialize climate advantage

If ambition is low but action is high, now is the time to commercialize your current advantage. You have likely embedded climate progress into your operations, offerings and innovation roadmap but your customers, employees and the world may not yet be aware. Evangelizing what you already have in place will create new ways to engage customers, boost preference and increase goodwill, creating further momentum to do more. Cement in people’s minds the tangible actions being taken now. As others match those actions, you’ll benefit from brand momentum while you work internally to build the case for even greater ambition.

03 | Mobilize toward climate ambition

Conversely, if ambition is high but action is still low, there’s a need to mobilize internally, ensuring that climate is built into your operational and offering roadmaps. Make that ambition explicit and connect it to your overall purpose. For example, DuPont published a commitment to nine sustainability goals they will deliver by 2030, including aligning their entire innovation portfolio to U.N. Sustainability Development Goals, in support of their brand purpose of empowering the world with essential innovations to thrive. This pulls-forward the benefit from future action and mobilizes the entire organization in common cause to deliver, or risk public failure. Frame your ambition around your ‘why’ and demonstrate tangible progress with beacon offerings that signal where you are heading to build goodwill as you strive to hit your larger goals. It is better to be ambitious and come close than set easy targets that won’t deliver meaningful progress.

04 | Establish climate ambition

Finally, if you’re a company with neither clear action nor ambition, now’s the time to build the case for getting started. Companies require permission to operate from regulators and policy makers. How those stakeholders act is heavily influenced by public sentiment. Concern over climate change will continue to rise as the negative impacts are more clearly felt. Companies that are seen as laggards will struggle to hire talent, face friction in how they compete and will likely lose direct sales from an increasing proportion of the population or key customer accounts.

In short, know where your company stands today and wants to stand in the future. Then use your marketing skills to help raise the ambition and amplify the benefits from any actions that have been taken or are in motion. In doing so you are helping your organization see the opportunities and get ahead of impending transformative forces.

Next, adapt to the other headwinds

It’s likely that despite efforts we will breach climate commitments and the world will warm. That makes it imperative that we address the other global headwinds. Polarization is the grit in the machine that hinders action. As marketers, we can feel temptation or pressure to lean into the values and increasingly outrage of our customer base. That provides succor to our audience in the short-term but reinforces an us vs them mentality while expanding the boundary of expected response for future occasions.

Prepare for an economy with an older population and lower disposable income. Inflation is likely to remain stubbornly higher than the past decade has led us to expect. Consumers will seek out value, resilience of supply and goods made in America. Productivity gains will come from automation and AI, but expect labor shortages. There will be a war for talent like nothing we’ve seen since the late 1940’s and marketing has a role alongside HR to ensure that the company’s brand is meaningful for its employees and prospective talent. We’ve seen that talent wants to work for companies that are a positive force for good and on the right side of history, not causing harm or simply doing nothing.

Lastly, unleash the creativity of your teams. Market concentration has risen in the U.S. as technology has enabled more “winner takes all markets”. Concentration reduces the competitive pressure to excel and while that helps individual companies, it slows innovation, productivity and the ability of the US to adapt to the changes coming. Marketing remains the ‘riskiest’ C-suite job; on average a CMO’s tenure is only 4 years. The competitive pressure remains intense and that drives us to our best work. Not just in demand generation but to be the creative heart of any organization, generating insight and seeking out paths to growth through new propositions and offers, of which climate will be one of the most transformative forces of our time.

Be storytellers.

We all know what needs to be done. It’s the path and timing of the journey that remains in dispute. Each of us has a pulpit from which to speak, not to berate but to encourage and creatively frame. There is no better discipline than marketing to reframe the conversation.

To do that, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the ambition and action of your company’s climate agenda clear?
  • Have you successfully demonstrated the link between climate and commercial opportunity?
  • Do you have policies in place for how your brand avoids further escalation of polarizing issues?
  • Does the rest of the organization value Marketing’s role to develop new propositions?
  • Is your organization ready for the demographic and economic shifts that are in motion?

If you don’t have clear answers to all five questions there’s work to be done to build collective belief and action of colleagues from across the organization.

But we’re marketers. That’s what we do.