Why market research firms should care about sustainability 

The number of publications by market research agencies on the topic of sustainability spiked during the Glasgow COP26 Climate Change summit. But the trend I noticed goes beyond some well-planned media moments. Ipsos and Kantar, for example, have dedicated a large section of their website to sustainability. Why does the market research world suddenly seem preoccupied with making the world a better place?  

The reason market research firms should care about sustainability is that it will be one of the most important themes for marketers in the coming years. Every self-respecting brand will have to make clear choices about what its contribution to a better world is. Because consumers are demanding it. Or, better yet, because the brands themselves want it. But wherever the desire to become more sustainable comes from, a successful approach to sustainability is no easy task.  

More difficult 

Getting a sustainable message across is much more difficult than a “normal” marketing message. Because in reality, sustainable marketing means that you want to entice consumers into behaving in ways they don’t really want to. Think of giving up long far away holidays and they will only benefit from behaving sustainably in the long run and even then, their individual benefit is minimal. 

And at the same time, sustainable consumption is no longer something for the frontrunners. An increasingly large number of consumers would like to make more sustainable choices. But a large proportion of them do not succeed in doing so. Due to lack of knowledge, lack of supply or because they are repeatedly tempted to make the unsustainable choice. 

The big battle or the big opportunity 

How difficult sustainable marketing is can be read in the book ‘Het grote gevecht’ (The big battle) by Jeroen Smit about the struggle of Unilever CEO Paul Polman to make the multinational more sustainable. During his reign, Unilever’s impact on the planet has been reduced in many ways. But nowhere does it become clear how Unilever is able to convert all those sustainability initiatives into consumer preference. Even Unilever’s marketers, whom I hold in high regard, failed to do so. And as long as consumers don’t buy more of your more sustainable products, being sustainable costs (a lot of) money.  

But if you succeed in getting consumers to choose your more sustainable products over those of the competition, then sustainability is a way to earn money (and make the world better at the same time). In this context, think of dutch Chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely, which has turned an idealistic objective (‘slave -free chocolate) into its distinctive brand asset. And by doing so has become one of the largest chocolate brands in the Netherlands. 

Knowing how to entice consumers to make more sustainable choices is crucial if you want to be a sustainable brand. You need to understand their choice architecture and know their motivations and barriers. Only then can you successfully influence their choices. Crystal-clear consumer insight paves the way to a world in which we use scarce resources in a sustainable way. No wonder, then, that market research firms have discovered sustainability. 

More fun! 

And there’s another important reason. Working for clients who value their social goals over their finances is much more fun, interesting and worthwhile for researchers. So if you want to attract talented researchers, then as a research company you cannot escape making a choice about which clients you would rather work for and which you would rather not. After all, if you are a young talented graduate who gets to choose, would you rather work for a cigarette brand or would you rather work for a start-up with a societal impact goal? The agencies that offer their staff the chance to contribute to a better world will be able to attract the best people.  

Good for the world and the industry 

So I’m pleased to see that the market research community is embracing the theme of sustainability. Because this is good for the sector. And for the world, if we succeed in helping marketers achieve their sustainability goals. 


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