Green Line Series | W+K Tomorrow’s Nick Barham Flips ‘Green’ Marketing On Its Head

We sat down with Wieden + Kennedy Tomorrow’s Global Director, Nick Barham, ahead of GoGreen to get the scoop on his presentation and his opinions on current trends in green marketing. Check out this Green Line Series Interview for a primer on this Thursday’s talk — “We Hate Sustainability”: Moving Beyond The ‘S’ Word.

GoGreen Conference: Before we get too far, can you give us a primer on what you do at Wieden + Kennedy Tomorrow?

NB: W+K  Tomorrow is an initiative of Wieden + Kennedy, and most simply, my job is to think about how we do things that we’re not currently doing. So what aren’t we doing today that we could be, and perhaps should be? I work on our sustainability initiatives because it’s something that is a changing landscape for brands. I also work with our incubator space called the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), which works in emerging technology and I help run a publishing venture. So W+K Tomorrow is looking at how communication in the brand landscape is changing and what we should, as a communications agency, be doing to respond to that.

GG: We’ve been in the business for the past five years of teaching businesses how to improve sustainability, and we’ve noticed a definite shift in language in the market. We’ve gone from “natural” to “green” to “sustainable” now. It seems like the green marketing world tends converge on certain language and visual representations — and if you don’t use the right language, you’re not seen as credible. But your presentation flies in the face of that by saying, ‘Ditch it’. If that’s the case, what do we do instead?

Nick Barham: Just to be clear from the get go, I’m not asking anyone to ditch sustainability itself or to stop using green practices. I’m from an ad agency, so my expertise isn’t telling businesses how to be more sustainable or how to operate in that area. What I’m interested in is how you should talk to people and the ways you can connect with them through that.  So when I talk about the ‘s’ word, I’m saying maybe it’s something we might want to walk away from in terms of language.

How can you reach a mainstream group of people with a green or sustainable message? I don’t think that leading with sustainability or saying that you’re green is necessarily the way to do it. That’s not to say that sustainability shouldn’t be a integral part of your business, but it’s not a main value point that most brands and businesses should talk about to their audiences. And it’s not that people don’t give a damn — I think they do. But if you look at global studies, the gap is very high in the States between the people who say they’re interested in sustainable issues and believe sustainability is a good course to take and those who say they’ve actually changed their behavior in order to become more sustainable.

Overall, I think sustainability is an essential business strategy, but I don’t think it’s a communications play for most brands. And that’s what I’m going to talk about at GoGreen. We’re going to explore that idea and go through what really matters to consumers and how to communicate to them appropriately about your sustainability practices.

 GG: Several years ago when we talked to James Curleigh, formerly of KEEN, and he brought up that they don’t lead with a sustainability message on purpose. They lead with the fact that they make great gear to help you live your life outside and enjoy the outdoors. 

NB: And then if you dig down a bit further, you find out that they do it in a way that is responsible and thoughtful and has as little impact as possible, right? When you chart sustainability in terms of a journey into business practices, at one point, it wasn’t something that most businesses were doing. So perhaps at one point, it was news that certain companies got on board quicker than others. They felt they had some kind of competitive advantage and a point of difference in terms of brand image. But these days, you would hope that a business’ sustainability initiatives are an essential part of their operations, just like they have an HR department or an accounting department. All of those things are essential to a business operating, but I don’t think they’re the things that you necessarily talk about. I can’t remember the last time I saw communications touting how honest or accurate an accounting department is.

There’s another point as well about the word ‘sustainability’ and its roots and meaning. Sustainability, by definition, is all about maintaining the status quo; it’s literally about keeping things the way they are. That’s become skewed when used in a ‘green’ context, because it tends to connotate balancing people, planet and profits or business. But you can’t get away from where a word comes from. If you’re using a word that is all about maintaining the status quo when what you actually need is radical system change or some kind of transformation, there’s still an implicit or subliminal effect pulling away from that. If there was going to be a word to talk about ‘green’, I’d much prefer a word that is more active and is about changing the way things are rather than trying to maintain some kind of status quo.

GG: We have a list of ‘no-no’ words that are considered off-limits unless it’s impossible to find a substitution — and sustainability is on that list. But it gets very difficult sometimes and it’s incredibly frustrating to see our words lose meaning because we use them irresponsibly. 

 NB: Yes, and I think this isn’t a sustainability issue. This is a communications or a marketing issue. Certain words at certain times gain currency and then, very quickly, they get used up. This goes way beyond the ‘s’ word. The communication challenge for all businesses and brands is to express what they stand for and what they do in a way that is truthful and distinctive, and that can only come from them. If you’re using the same vocabulary and the same imagery as everyone else, you’re not accomplishing those goals.

I’d add some other words like ‘quality’ or ‘service’ or ‘enjoyment’ or things like ‘the new normal’ are words and phrases that have been destroyed over the years. At the very least their meaning has evaporated. They’re not wrong, but they just don’t mean anything anymore. At Wieden + Kennedy, we believe that every brand needs to find its own voice and find its own set of beliefs and activities that surround that. Part of that is finding a kind of distinctive way of expressing yourself and your own vocabulary. If sustainability is an important part of who you are, then you need to do more than just stick that word in your communications. You need to define it in relation to who you are as a business and what you believe in.

GG: What are your thoughts on greenwashing? 

NB: I don’t know how effective greenwashing is because I don’t know how effective any sustainable communications have been. Again, if you look at the data, it suggests that the majority of people aren’t changing their behavior because of sustainable communications. Whether they’re honest or not, the majority of consumers are just not changing their behavior. That being said, I think greenwashing is such a loose term as well, isn’t it? It fits under a broader idea about some companies that are dishonest about the way they present themselves. You would hope that we would have the ability and the means to counter-check that.

It feels like there are an increasing number of measures out there, both legislative and also action-based to call out greenwashing. But ultimately I think it’s part of a broader issue in that some companies are more truthful about how they represent things. There’s certainly a tendency among certain companies to ‘greenweight’ their communications. So it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily being dishonest about what they’re doing, but they spend a lot of time telling you about something that might only be a very small part of their business. I think the car industry fits into that in that they spend a disproportionate amount of marketing dollars on talking about either hybrids or electric vehicles, when those vehicles represent a tiny part of where their profits and revenue is coming from.

GG: Without getting too far into your presentation, what are the keys to communicating well as a brand? People still want to be able to look inside and see what’s going on. 

NB: What we’ll talk about at the conference is how you communicate in a way that connects with big groups of people; particularly, people who aren’t necessarily that interested in green issues. You can always have a conversation about sustainability with a group of people who are, whatever you want to call them — ‘dark green’ — or people who are committed to change in this area. But realistically, most people aren’t like that. So what I’m interested in are the kind of conversations can you have with people for whom sustainability is something they’re aware of, but not something that they eat, breath, sleep, and dream.

Any successful brand or business has a purpose and a role to play. They should be delivering a unique set of services, products, and experiences to people. That purpose is the thing that should define and drive everything they do, and their sustainability initiatives should support that purpose, but I think for most brands sustainability isn’t and shouldn’t be the number one. So, figuring out how sustainability supports who you are as a company and speaking to that facet is going to be more effective in presenting your brand.

What I find interesting looking at the whole slew of sustainability communications that exist out there is that brands spend millions and millions of dollars on creating their own identify and developing their own voice to ensure they’re distinctive and stand out from all the other companies. But then as soon as it comes to having a conversation about sustainability, they all put a tree on it and suddenly, everyone looks the same. Hands holding the earth, leaves coming out of unlikely places, a green hue over everything, water rushing through a stream — suddenly it’s like there’s this shared bucket of imagery that everyone has just dipped into. They wouldn’t do that with any other part of their communication and I think that’s the challenge. It’s figuring out how you talk about sustainability without borrowing from this common pool. But instead do it in a way that’s true to you and comes out of who you are.

Nick Barham is the Global Director of Wieden + Kennedy Tomorrow, where he explores how things like emerging tech, sustainability and open data are changing how a communications company could behave and what it makes. He will give a Keynote Presentation at GoGreen Phoenix, Thursday, December 6, 2013 called, “We Hate Sustainability”: Moving Beyond The “S” Word. Register today to hear key insights on triple bottom line business approaches from Nick and more than 40 additional sustainability experts at GoGreen. 

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