This article looks into effective marketing strategies employed by sustainability leaders and why corporate messages about polar bears don’t have their intended effect.


This is based upon observations extracted from Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability Into Billion-Dollar Businesses by Freya Williams. This is an excellent book and I highly recommend that you buy a copy and read it.

She has a great quotation on page 182 which you can find below.

The mainstream, eco messages about polar bears will never beat ones about personal health, status, prosperity or happiness. Make it about people first, not the planet.”

Freya works as a CEO for Futerra in the USA. They are known for their effective approach towards sustainability communications. I would say with the above quote that Freya has hit the nail on the head.

The mentioning of polar bears, ice caps or other attempts to guilt trip consumers into buying items will never develop a product’s appeal among the masses. These concepts are too abstract to drive most consumers towards making a buying decision. It may work for the very small group of extreme environmental activists. But this group will tend to source out sustainable products anyway, regardless of the marketing. A very aggressive, guilt laden campaign will alienate the masses, for whom sustainability, whilst no doubt important, is not a top priority.

Companies should focus on people, their goals, their aspirations and their dreams in life. Explain to them how your product makes them a better version of themselves.

We have explained what’s wrong, what words should companies use to get it right?

On pages 190-191 Freya has an excellent breakdown of the most frequently used words by a number of sustainability leaders. Her findings are intriguing and go as follows.

Tesla’s top-used words are forward-looking, long-distance, cost, energy, fast, and performance. It never uses green and only rarely sustainable.

Nike’s words are design, innovation, performance, movement/motion, and technology; sustainability is in the top 10, but green is second from the bottom.

Unilever is a heavy user of sustainable—after all, it’s in the name of its plan—but the rest of its language includes children, life, future, open, and world.

Whole Foods leads with responsible and then uses fresh, health, new, pesticides, protect, and transparent.

In its Ecomagination communication, power, technology, and solutions dominate GE’s vocabulary.

These companies have developed a lexicon which has stayed far away from the clichés of polar bears and other aspects of environmental degradation. Rather they focus on positive aspects of their own products and sell those features as much as they possibly can.

Judging by the fact that almost all of these companies are performing well in the marketplace both in terms of sustainability and in terms of their business success, I would say that it has been a pretty good strategy.

What you need to know

This article looked into effective marketing strategies employed by sustainability leaders. We also looked into why corporate messages about polar bears don’t have their intended effect.

We looked into some observations drawn from the excellent book Green Giants by Freya Williams.

We looked into how sustainability is not a top priority for the masses and so communications need a more human approach and to focus on things that are important to the majority of people.

We looked into the language used by sustainability leaders, who prioritise selling the benefits of their products that people like and avoid clichés as much as they possibly can.

Overall the use of polar bears and other similar communication techniques should be avoided at all costs. Businesses should sell a product that makes consumers lives better. It should save them money, last longer, be better. Focus on these benefits, not clichés.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think makes a sustainability communications campaign effective?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

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