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Marketing sustainability: what we can learn from Apple

Caroline Fiennes for Guardian Sustainable Business
8th June 2011
Take the lecturing out of the issue and make sustainability cool, sexy and desirable, says Caroline Fiennes, executive director of Global Cool.
"Thinner, lighter, faster" - Apple explains why you should buy an iPad2. Notice it doesn't say, "Because it's fabulously profitable for us." Profitability is its agenda. There's no reason to suppose that Jo Public shares that, so Apple doesn't talk about it. Instead, it focuses on what Jo Public does care about. The tactic evidently works: Apple sold more than a million iPad2s in the first weekend.

How do we get that kind of uptake for sustainable lifestyles?

By marketing. If we're trying to get people to buy more sustainable products and services, or to buy less, or to change their lifestyles, or to travel differently, or to get our employees to change what they do at work, then we're trying to change their behaviour. That is, we're marketing. So let's do precisely what successful marketers do. Talk about what "customers" care about, and be willing to shut up – perhaps completely – about what we ourselves care about. Like Apple does.

Sounds obvious, doesn't it? But peculiarly, that often goes out of the window when people start work on green issues or sustainability or low carbon products. They start going on about green or sustainability or low carbon. They focus on their agenda – "look how very green we are" – rather than on the customer's. Thus they don't get beyond the niche greenies.

In technology, the early-adopting techno-fanatics have consistently proven very different from the mainstream. They buy for different reasons, in different places and at different prices. A "technology chasm" separates early-adopters from everybody else. To cross the chasm and engage the much larger mainstream, marketers need different tools, and to focus relentlessly on mainstream interests.

Perhaps sustainability is analogous. Perhaps an environmental chasm separates people with a professional interest in sustainability from everyone else. That would mean that persuading the majority to choose the sustainable options requires something quite different. And since people who work in sustainability are very likely to be early-adopters themselves, it means appealing to motivations that might not be our own.

Motivations such as being cool, saving money, having fun, being busy, getting great design, complying with social convention. National Express' ad campaign a few years ago was brilliantly aimed at the mainstream, giving 101 reasons to travel by train. Not one of which was its lower carbon footprint. Vintage clothing is marketed as fashion – beautiful, individual and trendy – and has grabbed a much larger market than if it focused on its environmental credentials.

By contrast, I'd be interested in whether Plan A has enabled Marks & Spencer to engage customers who shop on style and price. And I would love to see advertising by Ecover or solar-powered gadgets which focuses on their performance, rather than eco-attributes.

I'm not suggesting simply describing climate change or sustainability with better language or better imagery. I'm suggesting sometimes not talking about sustainability or low carbon at all.

Companies don't become profitable by talking to customers about profitability because most customers don't care about that. They get customers to do something which is profitable by making it attractive to those customers. So it is with sustainability: our job isn't to make people interested in sustainability as such, but rather to get them to do things which are sustainable by making them attractive. That is, by making them beautiful, cool, socially normal, fashionable.

It doesn't matter why people get on a train or recycle or eat less meat. It just matters that they do. If we can stop talking about why we want people to do it, and just make it attractive enough that they do it, then perhaps then we could engage a million people in a single weekend.

This story has been published under licence from Guardian Sustainable Business, of which GreenWise is an editorial partner.

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Marketing sustainability: what we can learn from Apple
Apple sold more than a million iPad2s in the first weekend it went on sale
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