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Refill, Re-Use, Recycle... Retail?

Industry experts discuss sustainable campaigns in retail and how the best ones succeed in changing customer behaviour, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

Refill, Re-Use, Recycle... Retail?

How do we change customer behaviour to encourage more sustainable habits? It’s a question on every sustainability-conscious brand’s lips, as more light is shed on the environmental impact of their products, services and processes. Many brands have sustainability initiatives - pledges, promises and proposals galore - but how are brands and marketers making a tangible difference in these brands’ retail locations?

The ‘Goodworks Segmentation’ research from VCCP makes it clear that the desire from consumers is there for sustainability-focused products and brands - but getting consumers to change their existing shopping habits to more sustainable options is proving difficult. According to the research conducted in the UK, the two largest groups of shoppers are defined as apathetic ‘passives’ (25% of shoppers), and the financially squeezed, time-pressured ‘preoccupied’ (23% of shoppers). 

Rob Sellers, head of retail at VCCP explains that due to inflation, economic uncertainty and reduced household budgets, “the biggest single driver for consumer choice in almost every market for the foreseeable future will be value.” And as the dire global economic circumstances only worsen, he believes that “neither group is going to actively seek out sustainable brands over convenience and price, unless a retailer could hard-wire sustainability into everyday purchases.”

Speaking to more experts, such as marketing and sustainability expert and author Thomas Kolster, LBB’s Ben Conway discovers that this seems to be the general consensus for projections of consumer behaviour, with regard to their sustainability choices in-store. Thomas says that the power to change this behaviour lies within retailers’ and brands’ authenticity and dedication to going beyond “pretty sounding purpose statements.”

“Retail has the power not only to prove there’s action behind those words but, more importantly, to involve and inspire people to live more sustainably. There’s still a lack of ingenuity or sincerity behind most activities,” he adds. “If you really want your customers to live more sustainably, there’s a lot that can be done. Why not skip your regular discount-focused campaigns and reward people for the real sustainable choice? It’s the ones who truly get us to live more sustainably that will win our love and wallet.”

How do the best sustainability retail campaigns effectively change customer behaviour?

As VCCP’s Rob Sellers mentioned earlier, despite the general public’s good intentions, most people simply don’t have the time, energy or financial security to do things differently. This is why the founder of M&C Saatchi Life, Tom Firth says, “The best sustainability retail campaigns offer better options without asking for much change at all: ‘Looks interesting - I’ll give that a try,’ is the ideal response.” He suggests that a successful campaign not only needs to stand out and make a change that feels useful - but must also solve customers’ issues with minimum disruption. 

Shannon Sandilands, senior strategist at Re (part of M&C Saatchi Group), agrees, saying that the best campaigns “add value to customers’ lives… deliver additional value and go beyond the sustainable message or desired action.” She explains that this encourages a behavioural shift by building an affinity between brand and customer, using the brand’s purpose as a north star. This, she says, ensures the campaign is “truly authentic to the brand, and thus more distinct and credible.”  

Thomas Kolster goes a step further, saying that effective campaigns must put people’s dreams and fears first, in what he describes as a “post-purpose market.” He says, “People aren’t buying your values, your ‘big why’ or your actions - but who you can help them become. Everybody can claim to have values, but it’s the brands that have helped you become healthier or greener, that are going to win people’s trust and appear authentic. That’s why you, as a brand, have to ask yourself: Who can you help people become?” 

Examples of effective sustainable campaigns in retail


Unilever - Smart Fill

Arpan Jain, executive creative director, VMLY&R COMMERCE India: “‘Smart Fill’ is a unique in-store brand experience that got Indian shoppers to switch to a sustainable packaging alternative. Shoppers can bring their used empty bottles to stores and ‘Smart Fill’ them with their favourite Unilever liquid products. This solution arose when we sought an effective solution that could actually help Hindustan Unilever implement a circular economy approach. While the brand has explored various sustainability initiatives, we realised that our efforts were raising awareness - but not inspiring action. By leveraging cultural nuances and appealing to Indians’ value-seeking mindset, ‘Smart Fill’ turned awareness but inaction, into action that propels change. We’ve not only created a simple, scalable business model for Unilever, but also made the sustainable option the most lucrative one.”

Loop and Unilever - UK Supermarkets’ Refill Initiatives 

Rob Sellers, head of retail, VCCP: “In the UK, we have seen a meaningful partnership develop between Tesco - the country’s biggest grocery retailer, and Loop, the refillable packaging initiative. It’s limited to 10 stores, and about 30 brand partners, but that’s about as mainstream as you can get. Asda has also created refill stations in over 50 stores, and in the last year, Co-op has been trialling refills in store with consumer goods giant Unilever.”

IKEA - Cirkulär


Jon Bird, executive director, VMLY&R, and advisor to VMLY&R COMMERCE: “We really admire a lot of the work done by IKEA. A great recent example is ‘Cirkulär’ (from Dentsu X and Accenture’s Hjatelin Stahl). It emerged from a commitment by IKEA to be ‘circular and climate positive by 2030’ - putting less into landfills and getting more use out of every product. IKEA launched the campaign in the run-up to Black Friday, a day of excessive consumerism. Phase one had IKEA offering to buy back old furniture; phase two then restored and resold these ‘classics’ at a better-than-new price. This wasn’t a one-off campaign – IKEA now has second-hand hubs in 28 countries. This wasn’t ‘greenwashing’ - but a genuine effort to change the direction of the business.” 

Levi’s - Levi’s SecondHand

Shannon Sandilands, senior strategist, Re (part of M&C Saatchi Group): “Levi’s SecondHand is a ‘recommerce’ and buyback platform that allows customers to buy and sell second-hand Levi’s jeans and jackets. What Levi’s has done very well is articulate a strong brand-led story that makes buying their second-hand jeans and jackets even more desirable than something new. 

The story they tell links to an insight that thrifty customers love to hunt something that has a story and is unique - and Levi’s is amongst the most searched brands in second-hand markets. Capturing this insight, Levi markets its second-hand jeans and jackets as products with stories that can be passed on and built on. Customers can expect to receive a gift card when reselling a Levi’s product on the platform. This goes a step beyond to deliver added value to the customer and incentivises a shift in customer behaviour. It’s a model that’s expected to be a significant turning point in the fashion industry, creating true circularity and ultimately, customer loyalty.”

What are some common pitfalls of sustainability projects that these examples avoid?

“Retail is tough,” says Thomas, explaining that there is a short window to engage with people in the aisles of a store - and to do so in a way that doesn’t come across as ‘preaching’. “Your challenge is to translate the complex sustainability message into simple, emotional and actionable communication,” he says. “There’s a lot of talking down to people. Adding flowers or the colour green to the packaging. Just writing ‘sustainable’. The market has evolved, and people want to engage and know more. How do you explain regenerative agriculture in a simple and emotional way?”

Jon agrees that many of the pitfalls revolve around a failure to effectively engage the consumer in retail locations. He says, “Sustainability projects can be ‘worthy’, but if they don’t engage the consumer, they are a waste of time. As we say: ‘Creative Commerce Converts’. Creativity is critical in sustainability programs too.” He believes that there is a tendency for brands and marketers to think in terms of “stunts” and to put the brand’s values at the centre, often in an attempt to chase awards - rather than generating “true behaviour-changing campaigns” that solve customers “pain points.”

M&C Saatchi Life’s Tom Firth says, “They [poorly executed campaigns in this space] assume people will work harder for better. Most of us don’t have the time, even if we’d like to. They overpromise on the benefits or position their brand as THE solution. No brand can solve these problems alone.” Tom defines the guiding mantra of sustainable marketing as ‘humility and honesty’, explaining the importance of knowing every aspect of your value chain in detail. “Rushing to talk about one ‘good’ aspect of your offer is very risky without understanding the whole picture. You may be great in one area of your value chain, but terrible in another. That leaves you vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy and greenwashing.”

So, what is the key to avoiding these issues? 

The experts agree on one thing: a sustainability project has to be an authentic part of your brand. “It can’t be an ‘add-on’, or it comes off as being an afterthought,” says Jon. “Increasingly, we consider sustainability at project kick-off, as an integrated part of the brief. Start the way you want to finish.” 

Summarising this philosophy, Shannon says that brand and sustainability can not be looked at in isolation - the brand’s purpose and personality act as a guiding star for all of its marketing, including its sustainability activations and processes. Echoing Jon, she says, “By it [sustainability] being the starting point, it will ultimately feel like it is more authentic and distinctive.”

Another challenge, as with many commerce projects, is scalability. According to Jon, brand owners aren’t looking for one-off activations, but instead “want transformational creativity that unlocks profitable growth” - something that requires end-to-end, system-wide thinking. But like with any shift in business model, investment, margin and returns are paramount - especially in retail, where retailers and consumer-packaged goods (CPG) businesses operate on a low-margin, high-volume model.

VCCP’s Rob Sellers says, “Introducing new business models such as circular consumption, subscription and refilling is going to require a long-term view of resetting operational norms and ultimately habitual purchasing and consumption from shoppers. Long-term planning and abandoning short-term profitability is something that ‘new economy’ brands like Amazon or Uber embrace completely, but legacy businesses - who make up the majority of the [retail] brands we buy from, will need to challenge themselves to change completely. That is the ONLY way the businesses will be, as defined, ‘sustainable’.”

Tom puts it succinctly: “If it isn’t scalable, it probably isn’t sustainable, so you might not want to do it at all.” 

What is the future of sustainability campaigns in retail? 

Lowering environmental impact has been a priority, in principle, for most major CPG/retail businesses in the past decade. Businesses understand that long-term sustainability correlates with continued business success and that sustainable credentials can help products be a significant category winner. This is because premium brands can boast sustainability to attract shoppers who are willing to spend a bit more to acquire a product with such credentials. 

Whilst acknowledging that the logistics and production processes are “complex and multifaceted,” Rob believes that it’s largely up to retailers to scrutinise and adjust their supply chains in order to get sustainable products into shoppers’ hands - without the need to drastically change their fundamental business models. He says, “The biggest immediate driver in change is pressure from (some) mass retailers, who pass on their own sustainability agenda to suppliers and mandate them to satisfy criteria in exchange for continued distribution support.”

Jon says that the modern world is about partnership and collaboration, working side-by-side with clients to create sustainable activations. And while brands will continue to develop products in-house, agencies can add value to this process. 

Shannon affirms that to achieve a significant change, brands and agencies are required to form closer bonds - not just between themselves, but with customers too. “The best solutions are created with consumers and not just for consumers,” she says. “It is imperative to gain their input on potential solutions and actions. A sense of co-ownership will increase usage and ultimately shift behaviour. Sustainable innovation must be collaborative. This should also extend into community ownership and ideation.” 

Tom suggests that the future lies within normalising a blend of better products with better behaviour, highlighting the words of strategist and author of ‘Greener Marketing’, John Grant: “The role of marketing is not to make ordinary things look green, but green things seem ordinary.” Fellow author, also specialising in purpose-based marketing, Thomas Kolster goes a step further, saying that the ‘green things’ can’t just seem ordinary, but must also have a “stringent focus on real change,” instead of passive overarching purpose statements - and must also utilise creativity to the fullest. 

He says, “The more focused your efforts, the higher chance of success. It helps to be specific. You might want to run a marathon, but you begin with the three or five-mile runs and go from there. You have to put people first. Agencies can, without a doubt, take the baton and inspire their clients and show them a new way forward. The day agencies stop trying to apply creativity to the toughest challenges is the day they become irrelevant.”

In order to make these specific efforts successful, Rob makes the case that the “ease of completing purchase missions is a massive driver of shopping behaviours,” and therefore any sustainable retail activations need to match or approximate the existing convenience of the modern retail experience. Again, he repeats that the average consumer realistically doesn’t have the time nor energy to separate out and alter habitual purchasing patterns, or manage their behaviour to engage in the reusable elements of a product. 

He says “However amazing and frictionless the CX around a solution has been designed, it is still never going to be as convenient as modern grocery shopping where all the products are in one place - at prices and in formats which can suit nearly every mission. So even if brands are the ones driving the possible shift in business models, partnering with retailers will continue to be essential to reaching the mass market.”

Brands and businesses need to collaborate and think sustainably “with a combination of top-down and bottom-up thinking” from the organisations, whilst taking on board what’s important to the consumer, says Jon. He demonstrates this using Unilever’s recent track record as an example, stating that 28 of Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands grew 69% faster than the rest of the business in 2019 and delivered 75% of Unilever's overall growth. 

He concludes, “That’s business transformation in action. When both [sustainably led-thinking and customer needs] are in sync, you can be truly transformative.”


view more - The Sustainability Channel
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LBB Editorial, Fri, 09 Sep 2022 16:26:00 GMT