I cut my advertising teeth in a world where massive campaigns were created to trumpet innovations that were usually incremental, or insignificant. While it was terrific fun for me as a creative director, I believe in hindsight our clients would've been better served diverting ad funds into R&D. Designer Yves Behar captured the sentiment succinctly: "Advertising is the price companies pay for being unoriginal."
Fast forward to today. Technology has dramatically accelerated the pace of innovation. Sustainability has become a design filter, pushing new materials and engineering to the forefront. Original, better products are everywhere.
But what about advertising?
It seems 'small innovation, big campaign' brands are waning. Our growing unease at hyperconsumption (partially fueled by a growing awareness of climate change) is making us cynical about the status quo. Social media has turned us into a world of investigative journalists, decrying brands that don't 'get' the new world.
One would think brands with innovation and sustainability built in would be trumpeting from the hilltops. Not so.
Adidas: Big Ideas, Softly Spoken
She's speaking this year at Sustainable Brands' inaugural London conference, exploring the culture shift that's changing the way we think about sustainable innovation.
Core to her topic is a new paradigm for communicating the brand of sustainability.
In conversation, she points to events like the London Olympics as a massive celebration of sustainability. "A few years ago, sustainability had a crunchy Granola feel." says Olans. "Today, thanks to events like the Olympics, people simply accept sustainability as a better way forward."
Adidas, a major player at the Games, reaped the rewards not just in profile, but in new partnerships and thinking. "The Olympics enabled us to do a lot of cross brand learning, sharing ideas with companies in completely different sectors like packaging." says Olans.
But how does Adidas communicate sustainability outside the context of massive events? Olans paints a much subtler, perhaps even contradictory picture.
"At Adidas, we see sustainability as simply the right thing to do, not something to lever to our brand's advantage." Olans understands how this approach can create an uncomfortable brand tension. "Before London, we didn't even talk about our sustainability. In fact, consumers had a hard time accessing information on our sustainability credentials."
Wouldn't celebrating Adidas impressive sustainability achievements help the brand? "Certainly, but Olans says her company's culture is one of actions, not words. "We've committed to sustainability, but we know there's still much more to do." What's more, she believes overusing sustainability in communication can create a cynical backlash in consumers.
Performance First, Sustainability A Close Second
That said, Olans sees a new way for brands to communicate sustainability.
With 60 major apparel and footwear manufacturers, retailers and suppliers, Adidas has joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Although the Coalition's mandate is to measure and standardize the environmental and social impacts of clothing, it is also standardizing the language surrounding sustainability.
"It's in our best interest to create a common language, with hard measures behind any claims." says Olans. "That way, the industry can single out imposters, and begin to market sustainability in a credible, authentic way."
Olans agrees that sustainability marketing is a real need. "Consumers still want performance first. But more and more, they're looking for clothing with sustainability built in."
It's still early days, but Olans feels hopeful. Progress is palpable. And by keeping communication reserved, she believes brands will win the trust of skittish consumers.
Lessons for Marketers
Sustainability is an important part of brands that want to futureproof themselves. So how can you incorporate your brand's sustainable attributes into the sell?
1. Talk softly - Consumers have never been more wary of overpromising. Even worse, sustainability is a motherhood issue -- overpromise/underdeliver, and you'll create a very nasty, very public reaction.
2. Back the claims - Standardized claims backed by real meaures are still a work in progress. But chances are, there's an industry group working on the problem in your sector. Do a little homework to see how your claims measure up before you plaster them on your packaging.
3. Don't try to cheat - There is no shortage of greenwash-busting in the media. I was just asked to weigh in on a show exposing offenders, and was surprised at the extent of cheating in claims. If it sounds good, but has no substantiation, don't do it. The PR nightmare isn't worth it.