Using Sustainability to Move Markets

It is the virtuous circle of marketing: Make your product so desirable that everyone must have it now. But can marketers achieve this same dynamic with sustainability? Can mainstream, mass-market brands motivate their consumers to buy into sustainable lifestyles? In this one-hour session, learn from influential brands and marketing innovators in a conversation about how to engage more consumers in sustainability.


  • Maxine Bédat, Co-Founder, Zady
  • Christian McGuigan, Vice President, Client Services, Participant Media
  • Neal Davies, President and CEO, Effie Worldwide
  • Elisa Niemtzow, Associate Director, Consumer Products, BSR (Moderator)


  • Mass market companies have developed extensive expertise in terms of creating aspirational products, but their marketing tactics for sustainability leave a lot to be desired. All too often, they are guilting consumers into action by tugging at their heartstrings and relying on their altruism.

  • In a 2011 European Commission survey, 72 percent of European respondents said they were willing to buy green products. However, only 17 percent did so in the month preceding the survey.

  • Understanding your audience, what they value, and how you can speak to their value system is critical to making sure that social impact campaigns are effective.

Memorable Quotes

“We need to ask ourselves how sustainability can start working for consumers instead of the other way around.” —Elisa Niemtzow, BSR

“Creating desire is no longer enough.” —Neal Davies, Effie Worldwide

“People like to show to the world that they are a person who cares about values. Values is actually the new luxury.” —Maxine Bédat, Zady

“No one self-identifies as a member of the general public. Everybody self-identifies in their own tribe, in something that self-identifies them in a unique way.” —Christian McGuigan, Participant Media


Elisa Niemtzow, who leads BSR’s consumer sectors practice, kicked off the session by noting that an increasing number of companies are trying to minimize the impact of their activities and their products and are expecting their customers to adopt more sustainable behaviors as well.

After a short introductory film, Neal Davies presented Effie, a nonprofit network that stands for effectiveness in marketing. He noted that a strong relationship exists between sustainability and effectiveness, and this is why Effie rewards companies that encourage their customers to move toward more sustainable behaviors. He also stressed that the old marketing model—awareness, interest, desire, action—needs to be flipped. He said companies have to rethink their strategies by understanding their audience’s mindset and defining the change they want to see in behaviors, analyzing barriers and drivers they will find in moving toward this desired outcome, and identifying the triggers they need to pull to achieve transformative change. Effie is launching The Positive Change Effie Awards in collaboration with the World Economic Forum to celebrate companies that can effectively shift consumer behavior toward sustainability.

Maxine Bédat then explained why and how she cofounded Zady, a shopping and lifestyle destination that provides an alternative to today’s “fast-fashion.” Zady’s innovative dimension is to create an “emotional connection” with its customers, who primarily belong to the Millennial generation. Bédat pointed out that consumers now expect companies to engage with them, which is why Zady’s website is focused on participatory communication. Zady is also focused on storytelling: every product page includes information about the creators of each product, such as why they wanted to create it and where it comes from, since supply-chain transparency is another pillar of Zady’s model. Finally, Zady’s six values icons are stamped on each product and on all packaging.

Niemtzow then asked Christian McGuigan to describe Participant Media’s customers. McGuigan answered that Participant Media’s most notable strength is thinking of each customer as an individual. He added that marketers should not count on the audience to drive action forward. They have to create social impact campaigns and make sure that impact happens by defining their customers, their values, and how to convey messages in terms that speak to those values.

Building on this last point, Niemtzow asked whether marketers should differentiate regular customers and “deep green” customers. Davies replied that the latter are not numerous enough to drive transformative change in behavior, but that making sure they never felt betrayed by a campaign was an interesting indicator to keep in mind.

Niemtzow then inquired about how Zady recruits new customers. Bédat explained that new customers are busy people and that it is important to create easy solutions enabling them to adopt more sustainable behaviors through the memorable experiences provided by the website and the pop-up shops installed in some airports.

Niemtzow then moved the conversation to feedback and measuring campaigns’ effectiveness. McGuigan emphasized the importance of celebrating success and creating a long-term relationship with the audience. He also explained how Participant Media’s Participant Index measures a media piece’s social impact by asking consumers how they were affected by its content and what kind of actions they took after seeing it.

The Q&A session started with a participant asking about how to make the business case to multinationals about marketing sustainability. Davies argued that sustainability had to be part of a portfolio of marketing ideas, but would fail as a standalone argument. McGuigan added that entertainment was a very important part of Participant Media’s business model, and Bédat concluded that multinationals had the opportunity to make their customers feel like heroes by choosing to use a particular product.

Another audience member asked how to scale this concept of engaging with customers from the startup phase through to mass-market success. Bédat replied that consumers are changing, that they stand in line for Chipotle instead of McDonald’s because Chipotle better understands its customers’ expectations and what they value. Seizing the opportunity to engage with them is a key factor of success.

The final audience question discussed the ability to convince managers that marketing sustainability would have an impact on their particular line of business. McGuigan replied that understanding what customers care about has become the new normal, and Davies followed up by saying that each product category has its momentum, and companies have to adapt to make sure they grab a small piece of that momentum.


November 5, 2014