Every brand’s marketing is as distinct as the products it sells, the audience it targets, and the values it stands for. But when it comes to marketing sustainability, eight brands—AT&T, Carlsberg, eBay, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, McDonald’s, Walmart, and Waste Management—all agree on three main ground rules.

Today, BSR, Futerra, and these companies (all members of BSR’s Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group) are launching the new guide “Selling Sustainability” to help brand, marketing, and sustainability teams more effectively influence consumers to make better purchasing choices and adopt more sustainable habits.

When it comes to marketing sustainability, there couldn’t be a better moment to seize. Three billion people are expected to enter the middle class over the next two decades, mostly from emerging economies, and they will desire the comfort, technology, and well-being that many of us have enjoyed for decades. According to GlobeScan and BBMG, about one third of these new shoppers are “aspirationals,” a segment of consumers “defined by their love of shopping (93 percent), desire for responsible consumption (95 percent), and their trust in brands to act in the best interest of society (50 percent).”

This signals one of the greatest business and marketing opportunities of all time, albeit a paradoxical one. How can we offer the “stuff” (or services) and the meaning? Today’s customers are demanding comfort without pollution, well-being from better-quality and more accessible food and drink, and happiness from their own changed habits. The answers lie both on the business side—which is responsible for creating new business models, and sustainable product design and manufacturing methods—and on the marketing side, which can influence consumer choices and habits.

Unfortunately, traditional methods used to influence consumers on sustainable lifestyles are failing. Guilt and pulling at heart strings are tired themes, and the need to tiptoe around greenwashing risks leaves many marketers wary. Plus, “conscious” consumers are already interested in green products. If the goal is to change purchasing and habits on a massive scale, marketers need to reach mainstream consumers with varying or no interest in sustainability.

Selling Sustainability” proposes three ground rules for consideration:

  1. Offer consumers more value from sustainability. Too often, campaigns focus on what consumers can do for sustainability and not the other way around. Consumers need a tangible value proposition that motivates purchases or actions. A wonderful illustration is Intermarché’s “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign, which offers imperfect produce at a 30 percent discount. The value proposition was clear: Shoppers got money back in their pockets, and the store tackled food waste—and saw a 24 percent increase in traffic.
  2. Build functional, emotional, and social benefits. There are many barriers, perceived and real, to better purchases and improved habits. Consumers might have concerns about performance of greener products, or question the luxuriousness of lighter packaging. We recommend doing a careful analysis of the barriers associated with the behavior you want to inspire and then counteracting these with a strong value proposition based on functional, emotional, and social benefits. Electric carmaker Tesla, for example, focused on emotional value with its “Insane Mode Driving Experience,” which was viewed 5 million times on YouTube, helping counteract the notion that electric cars don’t perform.
  3. Pay attention to timing. Last year, Sustainable Lifestyles members explored the daily habits of their consumers and learned something about human rhythms. For example, all people have somewhat predictable highs and slumps in their daily energy, receptivity, and attention levels, which affect our risk-taking, memory, ability to process information, and openness to suggestions. Ironically, in the evening, when our energy footprint is the highest, we are the least receptive to messages to change this. This is because functional messages work best in the morning, while emotional messages are all we can handle in the evening. Thus, sending consumers the right message, at the right place, and the right time is an important aspect of sustainability marketing, and perhaps the one we know the least about. As mobile and web technologies become increasingly sophisticated, marketers will be able to fine-tune messaging according to time of day and receptivity.

We invite you to put these guidelines to the test and share your own experiences with us. In 2015-16, our Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group will conduct a unique, multi-audience, multi-brand live testing of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to sustainability marketing and messages. Contact Elisa Niemtzow for more information.