Why Sustainability Needs to Be Sexy -- And How It Can Be

06/13/2015 05:19 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2016

Sexy and sustainability -- two words that go together like fun and root canal. Sustainability is a lot of things, but for most of us, sexy isn't one of them. That needs to change.

Polls consistently find that people want products and services to have sustainable attributes, and they plan to buy them. Just as consistently, actual purchases don't match up with stated intentions. There are plenty of reasons for this disconnect, ranging from how much people know to how much people care. But marketing is surely part of the problem, and it may be the easiest part to address.

Marketers typically present sustainability in do-the-right-thing terms, as an afterthought or not at all (figuring, it's not a motivator, so let's not talk about it). Those approaches aren't doing the job: If decades of id-targeted advertising have taught us anything, it's that virtue doesn't sell. And if we don't talk about sustainability, we can't get people to buy into it -- unconscious sustainable purchases are not going to accelerate the shift to a new economy.

We need to make sustainability sexy. Not underwear-model sexy, but irresistibly attractive. At Thinkshift, we've been working on cracking the code for sexy sustainability marketing -- the DNA of an "I want that" or "I want to do that" reaction. We're calling it (provisionally) the HELIX code: Humor, Emotion (or Empathy), Looks, Intelligence and the X factor.

Humor: The most viral quality

Humor can make even the most mundane products and services desirable -- and it's the rocket fuel powering most viral successes. There's a reason "sense of humor" appears in every personal ad writer's list of must-haves (acing out even long walks on the beach). Research on humor in advertising shows that funny ads are more memorable and likable (though -- key point -- it has to be related to the ad's core message to drive behavior). Neuroscientists have found that humor activates the brain's reward system.

So -- humor, good. And we're not just talking about jokes. Whimsy counts, too, along with wryness, silliness and general playfulness (think "Solar Freakin' Roadways" or Chipotle's "Farmed and Dangerous"). Humor in marketing is tricky. But if you really know your audience, you can find a way to amuse them that will grab their attention and open them up to your message.

Emotion: The key to our hearts

In short, susty marketing needs to hit people in the id. Anything worth having solves problems or satisfies desires, and the best do both. But sustainability marketing often focuses on solving the world's problems when it needs to focus on solving peoples' problems in a way that hooks into emotion and shows empathy. (Can we make "save the planet" go away, please?) Science backs this: Brain imaging research shows that people rely most on emotions -- feelings and experiences -- when evaluating brands.

There are plenty of ways to tap emotions, including storytelling, demonstrating empathy for your audience's problems and appealing to people's aspiration and self-image. Just do it.

Looks: They really do count

As the likes of Target, IKEA, Apple and others have proved, good design sells -- to a broad market and at any price range. Some sustainable brands clearly know this -- Method and Warby Parker are top examples -- but many brands seem stuck in a DIY aesthetic that they think says "authentic" but really says "cheap, crunchy, not cool." Looks do matter, from beginning to end -- not just in product design, but also in every graphic expression of the company's identity. For growth companies, this is not a place to cut corners. It can't be lipstick on a pig, either -- susty products often have superior functionality, and they should show it off.

Intelligence: The hottest quality

Intelligence is the one absolutely essential quality of sexy sustiness -- for the simple reason that without it, whatever you're selling is not sustainable. Truly sustainable products, services and behaviors are just flat-out better, smarter and often more technically advanced than conventional options. It's nuts not to highlight this in marketing, but many companies don't do it effectively. They worry that the intelligence factor is too complicated to explain, or, conversely, they make it too complicated and people just don't get it.

There's always a way to get to the core of genius. Marketers should work at this for as long as it takes. You'll know you've succeeded when people instantly see what's smart about your offering -- and feel smart for wanting it.

The X-Factor: That je ne sais quoi

The X factor is the functional opposite of intelligence -- it's not essential, but it can override every unsexy thing about what you're pitching. Who hasn't fallen in love with something and been unable to explain why? That's the X factor -- the utterly compelling thing you can't pin down.

If we can't define it, how can we pursue it? One way is to draw on symbols and schema that already have the X factor because of the cultural associations they carry. Another is to overturn expectations. Case in point: When the iPhone was introduced, we didn't think we needed to carry a computer in our pocket -- but we wanted it. This isn't just about newness (plenty of new things fail), but about mysterious wonderfulness.

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