Adland Is Great At Selling Products. What About Selling Sustainability?

Advertising and marketing have played a central role in driving consumerism and shaping trends, culture and buying habits for decades.

But will the industry be as influential in reshaping habits and culture to drive sustainability, now considered critical to reversing the climate crisis and keeping the planet inhabitable for future generations?

According to leaders who addressed the issue earlier this week at Cannes, they’re going to give it their best shot. But it may be the most daunting challenge they’ve taken on.

Conny Braams, Unilever’s Chief Digital and Marketing Officer said the task is “formidable . . . changing consumer behavior is one of the hardest things to do."

“Knowing our footprint is not easy,” she said, adding that marketers need to make it easier for consumers to “join in our journey to a healthier environment.”

Google’s Matt Brittin, president EMEA business and operations, said the next 12 months present an opportune window to influence consumer behavior given the immense change in habits that occurred during the pandemic. Sustainability-related searches on Google are at an all-time high, he said.

WPP CEO Mark Read said that consumption has driven economic development for decades and that Adland had played a key role in driving that consumption. That said it’s also been influential on myriad public service efforts like getting drivers everywhere to use seat belts in cars, he said. Adland’s creativity will be just as effective, he added when put “in the service of sustainability.”

When moderator and Cannes Lions Chairman Phil Thomas challenged Reed on the industry’s work on behalf of fossil fuel companies, Reed responded that those firms are under pressure to create more eco-friendly models. “We shouldn’t take away their right to communicate what they’re doing.”

Wendy Clark, Global CEO of Dentsu International, said that 50% of the effort to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals is linked to changing consumer behavior. “We can’t fix things if we’re not part of the solution,” she said.

All the speakers agreed that collaboration across the media/marketing industry will be critical to success. Clark for example said Dentsu spent a lot of time and resources devising a plan on how reduce company air travel by 65% by 2030. “Why shouldn’t we share it?” she said.

“COVID has shown us the way” that archrivals can collaborate to solve big societal problems, said Brittin. He noted pharma company efforts to develop vaccines and Google and Apple’s work on tracing infection sources.


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