Can marketing save the planet? - Bubka

Episode 46: ‘Speak Up Now – Marketing in times of climate crisis’ – creating credible Storylines with Author and Strategist – Wim Vermeulen

We’re excited to share with you a recent podcast episode featuring our very own Wim Vermeulen. In this episode of ‘Can Marketing Save the Planet,’ hosted by Gemma Butler, Wim, our Director of Strategy and Sustainability, discusses the role of marketing in times of climate crisis. If you want to learn more about how marketing can contribute to a sustainable future, this is a must-listen episode.”

To delve deeper into the conversation and gain valuable insights, we have provided the full transcript of the episode below. Additionally, you can relisten to the podcast by clicking on the audio file. Get inspired by Wim’s expertise and discover how marketing can play a vital role in addressing the climate crisis.”

Gemma Butler: And welcome to another episode of Can Marketing Save the Planet. We are delighted today to be joined by Wever Mullen, who is Director of Strategy and Sustainability at Booker, and also author of three books, the latest being SpeakUp, now Marketing in Times of Climate Crisis Whim. Welcome to the

Wim Vermeulen: Thank you very much and thank you for having me. So

Gemma Butler: Wynn, I wonder if we could kick off with you telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and also the work you do and also how your latest book came about. Because when we first met over email,  there was quite an interesting backstory to this book, which really piqued my interest.

And actually, you know, you said you really felt compelled to write it.

Wim Vermeulen: Yes. Thank you. So, I’m, for whom my life have been a, a, a, a strategist and a researcher. And so the last two years I’ve been working with people at the University of Gant, to find out about your consumer insights on sustainability, how they are different, and, and, and also.

About how, communication from brands and companies on sustainability is, is different than, than, regular com communication. because it’s a border, because communication can drive our sustainable transition forward, forward, but it has to be done right. So we’ve done a lot of work with the university to understand the insights and to understand how, how, communication.

Can work, better. And all those insights are used to write books and, and, and do documentaries. So the, the last book is indeed Speak Up. Now it talks about times in, marketing, in times of climate crisis. The documentary is called The Decade of Action. and that’s much more about not communication, but the reason why businesses need to go, all in.

And so the, the reason for Speak up now was basically a conversation I had with, one of the lead authors of the, of the latest I P C C report. And that was really, it blew my mind because, What he said that the, the, the professor is called Felix Reek for the Berlin from the Berlin University.

And so what he does is he looks at the mount side and the reductions that we can get from the mount side. And that’s very interesting because historically, all climate plans, Paris Agreement, et cetera, are looking at the supply side. So the, the, the plan is how can we stop supply? So, yeah. But basically that’s about, you know, pulling the plug out of oil and gas.

That’s very hard and politically. unfeasible for the moment. And so because those plans, you know, we’ve signed in Egypt again because those plans are not working really well and all of a sudden, you know, there’s talk of, you know, putting 1.5 aside, then you’re like, that’s really something important going on.

And so that group of, scientists are, are thinking about, you know, It’s good to work on the supply side. It goes, it’s really hard. So, you know, let’s, let’s look at the other side. Let’s not ask ourselves how we can stop supply, but how we can change demand so there is less demand for all based and gas based solutions.

And so, and that’s the consumer side, right? Yes. And so, what, what he said was, there is a possibility, the opportunity there is to reduce 40 to 70% of global, emissions between now and 2050. Now, that’s very interesting and very important because. that is sort of, you know, if pol politics won’t get us to 1.5 yeah, but if you add this to the equation, we can save Paris.

And that is of course very, very, very important. And, and so basically the, the, the, what he sees as tools is, for example, for example, policymaking. So if you’re smart, if. Policy makers are smart with, you know, incentives and taxes. You can sell more heat pumps. That’s, that’s one thing. But the other thing that this group of research is, is, or, or scientists is saying, is the bigger, the more important tool is socially norm.

Con, sustainable consumption. So make, sustainable consumption part of the culture. Now, that’s what we do as marketers, you know, that’s what we do. That’s our job. Yeah. Yeah. And so with everything we put out there, we norm, we socially norm things. We, we, we, we changed behavior. And so, and that was all of a sudden that was like an epiphany.

It was like, oh, that’s the job of marketing. You know, and it’s defined by climate scientists and it’s like, okay, so let’s stop, find out what our job is, how we can help fight climate crisis. You know, it’s in the I P C C report, the climate scientist defined it and they put numbers on it. So it’s, it’s, it’s really great.

And so, and so what I did was take that as a starting point and then think about, you know, what can. Marketers do. And that’s plenty of stuff that marketers can do. It all needs to help socially norm, sustainable consumption. Huh. But there’s different things that, that we can do if we, you know, we need to ask ourselves.

Uh, is it okay to launch products that have a really high con climate cost? Yeah. Is it not better that we, if we make our business cases that we so simply put is business cases, we’re gonna sell X units at X margin, so that gives us a profit. Great. Let’s launch this product. Maybe we should think about, you know, the third.

Uh, criterium and that’s the climate cost. And maybe then all of a sudden it’s like, oh, this is not a good business case. Because the cost to have that profit is, you know, very negative to society and very negative to the climate. So, you know, let’s not do that. Let’s find out, let’s, let’s ask the product people to come up with products that take the transition forward and not, slow it down.

Um, another thing we, that we can think about is pricing. So last year in 2021 in Europe, 48% of the products launched were climate friendly. So that’s like, good thing. Please continue, get us over the 50% and you know, and speed it up. But then if you look at pricing, then the average premium across industries, across products, the average premium for a climate friendly product is 75 to 85%.

Now, that’s a choice because Bain made a calculation and they looked at, you know, what does it cost to decarbonize a product? And that’s less than 5% of the total cost on average. See? So if it’s less than five and. Put a premium of 75% on it, that’s a choice, you know? Yeah. You, you can also not make that choice.

Uh, other people, researchers looked at what’s the, you know, the premium you can ask. If you wanna accelerate and detransition, and that’s 10%. So if the premium on sustainable products is 10%, it will explode. Now 10% is twice a 5%. Yeah. That’s a choice. That’s a choice that we have. Yeah. And, and there’s plenty of choice that we can make.

You know, the thing is, as marketeers, we have to ask ourself at the end of the day, every day. With all the decisions that I took today, what did I do? Did I accelerate the transition or did I slow it down? Now if you, if the conclusion at the end of the day is I slowed down the transition, yeah, you don’t wanna be there, you know, really don’t wanna be there.

You wanna be on the other side. You wanna be like, oh, okay, so I did good things today, so I, I. You know, I accelerated the transition. That’s a, a good place to be in. Now you can take all those decisions, and I have plenty of examples in, in my book of how companies do that and, and, and how they manage products and launch, or not launch products, et cetera.

But at the end, Socially norm, sustainable behavior of consumption behavior is about communication. And there it, where it goes wrong because, and that is, that’s pretty hard to, you know, if you see the numbers is like, wow, we, we really have a problem. If you, we, we, so the university, analyzed.

Research, 100 campaigns, sustainable campaigns, unsustainable program services, big brands, small brands, and internationally, nationally, different, 10 different sectors. And what we saw was only 9.7% of all those campaigns are credible. So really people saying, yes, I believe what I just heard. So more than 90% of those campaigns, people say, well, I, I really, I don’t ha no nothing.

I don’t believe anything. What I just heard. And these are big brands, you know? Yeah. Really big brands. And then you’re like, and then we, we dissected the results. And so we, we looked at the 10 sectors, and you might think, okay, if it’s on oil and gas, of course people won’t believe it, or is if it, if it’s fashion.

Of course people won’t believe it, but it is in every sector. The, the, the, the, the numbers are really low, and so there’s a huge credibility gap in every sector. Now, that means we have a language

Gemma Butler: problem, and I think this is very much in line with. Sustainable marketing and what Michelle and I talk about all the time around the fact that now as marketers, we do need to use our powers for good.

It’s about being more aware of the operating landscape, using the right language. It’s about, you know, taking your voice away, which I appreciate is easier said than done. if you don’t agree with the direction of travel or feel something your organization is planning on saying isn’t right, isn’t truthful is greenwashing or perhaps stalling, you know, progress to really driving their sustainable agenda.

And as you say, language is absolutely critical, isn’t it? Because it can have multiple impacts and results. So the language you use can determine whether you trust an organization in what they’re saying. it can determine whether you actually learn and understand about something, if the purpose of that language is to educate.

Um, and we can unpack obviously, some of that as we, you know, in the findings through your book As we, as we carry on this conversation. You know, the language you use really determines whether you engage or indeed disengage people, which, unfortunately is more often the case, when it comes to su the sustainability challenge.

And its complexities. And yeah, it can be really hard at times for people to take it in because it can almost be too much for some of them. But also the tone of your language is key in whether you motivate people into wanting to know more or, or indeed taking action more importantly. So it has such an important role, but in all of the different studies and the data you collected and the people you spoke to as you were researching and writing the book, How do we as marketers drive long last, incredible change through the language we use?

And can you give an example of where language has had a positive impact in bringing people along with it? Yeah,

Wim Vermeulen: so I’m talk, gonna talk about storylines of, of campaigns and then I’m gonna talk about what makes. a storyline. Credible, right? Yeah. The first storyline. It’s really, it’s really, interesting because there’s a lot of brands that say, you know, we are into climate action, but we don’t wanna sound as an activist.

Yeah, yeah. And so, so you pull, pull it down a little bit because we don’t wanna be Patagonia, or we don’t wanna be Levi’s, or we don’t want, you know, we wanna be just No. But we wanna be okay, but not be an activist or a climate leader. Yeah. Okay. So we looked at different storylines and we looked at, you know, if you build your, your storyline on bio, for example, what we see is it decreases your credibility because in the mind of the consumer, Bio is not the same as climate friendly.

Bio is healthy. Yeah. But it doesn’t mean it’s climate friendly. Okay. There’s a lot of noise around that. if, if you’re, if your storyline is, is sounds or feels activist little, not like Accenture Rebellion, but like Patagonia, yeah. Then it increases your credibility. Because, and the, the same thing with climate leadership.

So, if you are a traditional company, but you, you, you sound like a climate leader, you take leadership, then it, it adds to your credibility. Why is that? Because, it’s, it’s very simple. It’s, it’s, when you look at consumers and you ask them, you know, do you still trust that our political leadership will solve the climate crisis?

Where I come from, only 7% of the people say yes. Wow. So 93% of the people say we forget politics. They’re not talented enough. They will never take us safely through the organization. Right. No. Yeah. When you, and so the, the effect of that is people are massively looking at businesses. Yes. 83% of people say businesses, you know, you got the leadership.

You are international, you know how to launch international projects. You have the money, you know, you know, you understand timings and, and, and, you know, and, and status updates and project plans, and that’s all we need to get a safely through the transition. So could you please take leadership? Okay. Half of the clinical consumers are saying, and by the way, could you also, you know, tell us what we need to do because we know we need to install a heat pump, but I live in an apartment block, you know, I know I need to drive electric, but it’s too expensive.

I, I know I need to go vegan and drop meat and milk, et cetera. But, you know, I have a family. And, and so what they’re saying is, P, please put put. climate friendly products on the shelf, and I will buy them, you know, because I wanna contribute. But I have the feeling that what I can do is just a drop in the ocean.

So please give me scale, you know, scale. That’s what I mean. You know, if, if I wanna, I wanna buy product. If 100, 1 million other people are buying it too, that gives me scale and that’s much more than a drop in the ocean. And so, And so people want leadership. They want brands to sound like activists, if they mean it right, they, they have to, they have to come true.

But you know, they, they look, they’re looking for that. The other thing is, and it’s reflected in the drivers too, so, so from our research, we were a little bit surprised, badly surprised that only one in 10 campaigns were credible. So we looked for, What makes something credible? So we looked, we looked, we, we took the 9.7 very credible campaigns where dissected them.

And then we looked at what are the, the, what are the drivers that makes people say, I believe I ju I believe what I just heard. And some things are obvious, some things are not obvious, what people are looking for. And the first one is the most important one, but it’s very obvious. Is, companies Sounding honest.

Being honest, yes. And transparent. Yes. Yes. So basically saying, you know, nobody expects you to be at 100% in the transition because it’s not possible. Yes. You know, they, they don’t want you to say we are there yet. We are all, we are already climate neutral. Nobody believes it because everybody knows that it’s not possible except if you plant a million trees, which again, you know, leads to another discussion.

Um, so they just want you to be transparent. So if you’re, if you’re, if you’re not there yet, cool, you know, but tell us where you are. That’s one thing. The other thing is they wanna feel commitment. They wanna really feel commitment, you know? the third one is urgency. That’s, that’s a difficult one. So everybody understands that the climate problem, be it socially or be it, you know, climate being socially fair and climate friendly, it’s all very urgent.

You know, and so they, they want to understand that the brands that talk to them about sustainability or about being climate friendly, that they understand the urgency, you know? and that’s never in a brief, that’s really never in a brief, I’ve never had a brief that says, please make sure that people understand that we really understand the urgency and we’re doing everything we can.

To meet the, the, the urgency. Right? And then the, the fourth one is proof points. And again, proof points is not, no, we haven’t met zero plan. We’re gonna do this in 2030. This in 2034. And this in 2040. And this is 2050. That’s not proof points. No, that’s, no, that’s promises. Huh? Proof points is. We’re gonna do this to get there, or we, we are there already.

Yeah. And then the last one is, is, shared value. That’s what we call stakeholder value. Okay. So that the people need to understand what the value is for the brand, but also the value for them. And so, and if you look at that and you look at the campaigns that are in the 9.7 benchmark, then all of a sudden you start to understand how that works.

Um, but. You know, this needs innovation. So we need to start, we need to take those five drivers and then, you know, start to innovate on how we communicate. We use that in communication because, the thing is credibility was never ever an issue. If you take any toothpaste, advertising, it all promises, you know, your teeth are going to be crystal white as of tomorrow.

You know, nobody goes to the supermarket and says, yeah, you know, I, I, I used it, I tried it, it doesn’t work. I need my money back one month, my money back. Yeah, yeah. Cause everybody understands the language. Everybody understands that it’s not true. It’s just, you know, like we call it dramatizing the benefit.

You know, but it’s not true. And nobody thinks it’s true, but we can’t use that technique and sustainability because then all of a sudden it’s like, you’re lying. You know? Yeah. I, I will not believe you be because you are lying. Everybody says they’re going to be net Nigeria 2050, and then, you know, I don’t believe you.

You know, and so, and that’s a, that’s a big thing. So that’s why we need to, we need a lot of innovation. In that, in that language and how we talk to consumers, we need a lot of innovation because those five drivers is one thing to read them. It’s another thing to apply.

Gemma Butler: And this is another thing, isn’t it?

You raise in your book. and that is the abundance of terminology being used in and around sustainability and climate change. You know, in the book, you list the examples of climate friendly terms, some of them, carbon neutrality. Net zero carbon, climate neutrality, zero carbon, carbon free, net negative emissions, carbon negative, climate positive, you know, zero emissions.

It’s incredibly confusing cuz you know, there is no sort of set criteria or strict guidelines out there and what organizations should be using. And ultimately we should all be using. The same term, because only by using the same term can you actually compare where organizations are along their sustainable journey.

And you know, this, this, these multiple terms lead to the misuse of them, whether deliberately or by accident. They can be used to mislead people. And ultimately all of this just slows progress because everybody’s trying to work out where everyone is. So, in your experience whim, how can we start to tackle and manage this?

Because it’s already a huge barrier, isn’t it, in changing the course we are on and ultimately driving everybody in one direction.

Wim Vermeulen: Yeah. We need to stop inventing Yeah. Stuff. You know that because everything has been defined by scientists, you know? and then it’s like, what we, what, what we do is, well, okay, it’s defined, but we’re gonna call it, otherwise we’re gonna name it differently.

And it’s like, no, no, hold on. No, the name is, it’s done. You know, it’s there. Being climate neutral is defined. Either you are climate neutral or you’re not, you know, and then all of a sudden you’re, I’m lifetime carbon neutral. No. Well, I don’t know, but there’s no way to judge because it hasn’t been defined by the scientist.

So, you know, stop inventing stuff, you know? Yeah. Just there’s 10 definitions. Defined as 10 terms, basically defined by, by a climate scientist. Okay. That’s the Bible. Use it, you know? Yeah. And, and don’t try to invent other stuff because it’s, it’s only add to the confusion. It’s, it’s already difficult enough to, to, you know, to, to explain the consumer that you’re climate neutral.

Because already that is difficult to explain. So if we’re gonna use 10 different terms to say the same thing, nobody will understand it. You know, it has been defined. Trust the signs, you know, trust the signs, the, the, that follow the signs. That’s what we need to do.

Gemma Butler: And I think unfortunately, the number of terms, and we do love to invent a term in marketing, don’t we?

Uh, we love to come up with something new and put spin and color on it so it stands out and amplifies a message and more people engage with it. But in this case, we’ve ended up causing mass confusion, I think in some ca in some areas, which, given the enormity of the targets isn’t a good thing because people start to disengage and don’t understand the meaning of what’s being said.

So in terms of the language and messaging you use, That’s why we do the work we do at Can Marketing Save the Planet, because we believe that an educated and responsible marketer is the most powerful marketer out there, and they’re the ones who will be successful when it comes to changing behaviors and as, as you say, socially norming sustainability.

Another thing you talk about in your book Whim is, that is central to, creating a more sustainable future is collaboration, isn’t it? You know, no one country organization, NGO, or individual can solve this issue alone. And we have to work together. And the value in collaboration is something that has become more balanced or or shared in terms of value over the last few years.

And in the book you use the example of Vlu, which I hadn’t come across before, and how they’re really setting the standard when it comes to their approach and how they’re going really hard on their commitments. However, They aren’t on their journey alone, are they? Because they are working with the W W F and the Carbon Trust.

So, you know, can we talk a bit more about Vlu and, and why that approach works?

Wim Vermeulen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that’s a fantastic example of climate leadership. So VIX is basically a very traditional company. It’s not a very cool company. It’s not, you know, it’s not a climate leader, it’s not an activist, it’s, it’s some, a very traditional company.

And then, and then all of a sudden they come with this campaign. What is, why? One, one thing is, if you would put that campaign as an agent agency, do an advertise, you would have to say, listen, we are gonna do in the 15 seconds Facebook, Instagram world. Yeah. We, we gonna do an ad of two minutes 30. Are you still with me?

No. No. Okay. Second thing is, and the CEO is going to do the target. What? Yes. The CEO is going to do Target. Sorry. Yeah. Okay. And the third thing is, we are gonna talk about something nobody will understand. Yeah. And then, you know, it’s like, are you ready for the commercial? Will you, will you run that commercial?

Of course. No. Yeah, yeah. But they pulled it off. They, they really pulled it off. And the key there is their collaboration with wwf. So what they’re saying is, we started in 1941. And so in 2041, we will be carbon neutral, but not only, you know, carbon neutral with the stuff that we do then, but we will have compensated every kilogram of CO2 we ever emitted sins.

1941 and then you’re like, oh, wow. That’s climate leadership. Yeah. So it’s, it’s in the top 10 of credible commercials. Right. So they, they, they’re really very credible and you can’t say that that credibility comes of the brand because it, there’s no history of climate leadership in that brand. So there’s out of the blue, they just came with that and was like, wow.

Now, the thing is it’s all planting trees. Right. And so then you are like, hold on, hold, hold on, hold on. Compensation. Okay. So where’s the, where’s it where you say, you know, not in a commercial, but in on the website. Yeah. And where the plan, find, where do you say how much you reduce and how, where is it that you say that the last 10 or 20% you’re gonna compensate?

Right. And then it’s not like that and it’s like, ooh, greenwashing. But then they come with WWF and you know that W W F. You know, if they come along it’s sound and valid. Yeah. And that’s like well done, you know, well done. It’s a new sort of collaboration, you know, and it adds to the credibility. It’s the, when we talk about proof points, about, that’s the proof point that made that thing credible, that campaign credible.

It’s also the, the C E O as that was also a proof point. Because of the CEO talking there, talking and explaining. It was like, you know, a PR announcement really well done. But because it was the CEO with a normal voice of. It wouldn’t have had that credibility. And that’s

Gemma Butler: something we absolutely need more of, which is, you know, leadership, real leadership within sustainability.

And, and that’s across all functions within organizations. But coming from the top down, you know, is, is, is really important, as, as we all head in this, in this same direction or all aim to head in the same direction. So, you know, anyone listening today, go and have a look at Felix’s website and have a look at what they’re doing because you know it, it’s a really interesting case study.

So whim, I could literally talk to you all day. There is so much food thought in your book. and you know, I, I, again, I think everybody should absolutely go and read it, but, we like to ask all our guests the same. Three quick five questions to wrap up the show. So my first question to you is, can marketing save the planet?

Wim Vermeulen: Yes. And it has been defined, and the way to do that has been defined by climate scientists. It’s in the I P C C report, chapter five, the last I P C C report, chapter five. It’s all about how marketing can save the planet. So the, you know, the numbers are there. The, the, the, the tools are there, everything is there.

So let’s read that. Let’s do that. And that’s how we gonna save the planet. Help save the planet.

Gemma Butler: Brilliant. And my second question to you is, what do you hope business looks like in 10 years time? Yeah.

Wim Vermeulen: I hope that, that’s 2033. I hope, hope that we, we can look back and, and, and say, you know, it was just in time, but we got the message.

I think it’s time to have a, a high ambition co coalition of marketeers. Marketeers that, you know, speak up and that, that ask that question at the end of the day, how did I, what did I do? Did I accelerate the transition or did I slow it down? And. People that have the ambition to not slow it down. I

Gemma Butler: think a high coalition of marketing leaders would be great.

And when, my final question to you today is if you were to give one piece of advice to others around getting started with sustainability or sustainable marketing, what would it

Wim Vermeulen: be? Yeah, for the planet in your meeting rooms. I love that. So I, we, we’ve, we’ve done that. So, and I tell everyone that, so it, it’s the, the, the, a blow up planet.

It’s a plastic, you know, the nothing to do about that, but put it in the meeting room. And so in, when you have meetings and then make decisions at the end of the meeting when you have your list of decisions and next steps, ask the planet what he thinks about the decisions that you just made. The planet, of course doesn’t speak, but you will know.

You will know. You will know. I love that idea. Yeah. And have a discussion and ask the people, what do you think that the planet would say now? And if somebody says, you know, I don’t think the planet would agree, have a discussion on that and what you can do to make the planet agree. Have a discussion on that.

It changes things. It makes things. Easier because all of a sudden you’re conscious about, ooh, we have an impact on this, on this blue planet. Are we responsible for it? So, you know, I, it

Gemma Butler: helps. That is absolutely brilliant. You know, making, making earth a stakeholder in the room. Earth is our biggest stakeholder after all.

So, I love the idea of, of asking Earth what? What Earth would think. So we thank you so much for your time today. How can our listeners find more out about you Indeed, about the book, which you can pre-order on Amazon now it comes out in January, but how can they find out more about

Wim Vermeulen: you? Yeah, so, on my, my website, I have the list of all the books and the documentaries and all the research that do it.

Gemma Butler: That is great. And again, thank you for joining us. I have thoroughly enjoyed our chat today.