Is Subtlety the Key to Sustainable Messaging?

I was like, 15 feet away from Moby once. He was eating with Kat Von D. 2004 Ali was freaking out. Not incredibly surprising since we were eating at his bougie restaurant in LA, Little Pine. OK, I felt the need to lead with that cause look how super cool I am, but anyway. The real point of the story is the food. I knew it was a Vegan restaurant and I knew 100% of the profits were donated to animal organizations (so LA it hurts). Yet, I was left wondering if what I ate was actually vegan. It didn’t specify anywhere on the menu that everything was vegan nor did they place a “V” next to things that were. There’s NO way that those scrummy meatballs were vegan (they were). It got me a-thinkin’ – do we always have to specify when meals are vegetarian or vegan? Could we convince meat-eaters that they don’t have to sacrifice taste or protein by simply withholding the fact that what they just ordered was a vegan meal?


I took another peek at Little Pine’s menu. Yep, still 100% plant-based. 


Then I saw this article in Food & Wine. Apparently, I’m not completely off-base. According to research out of the London School of Economics performed by Linda Bacon (approps name), meals listed with a “V” in the main menu were ordered twice as often as compared to the same dishes listed in a vegetarian section.


This is just one small study and it would be wrong to extrapolate its findings, but it is an interesting idea to explore (queue me extrapolating). It’s likely the meat-eaters in this study didn’t associate themselves in the vegetarian group, so they skipped right over it. They may also think they are giving something up by ordering a vegetarian meal – taste, protein, nutrition, manhood. You could apply this to sustainable choices in general. Hell, I do it all the time. I see the green leaf on a cleaning product and I automatically assume  it’s overpriced flower water.

Innovative products are challenging that stereotype. Want an environmentally friendly and stylish/high performing vehicle? Get a Tesla. Want a sustainable and effective cleaning solution? Buy method products. Want an earth-friendly and more affordable beauty product? Check out Love Beauty and Planet. For a large portion of the population, being “green” isn’t a selling point. In some cases, going with that angle could drum up some negative associations brands weren’t anticipating.


You might say – so you’re saying NOT TO MARKET SUSTAINABILITY ON A SUSTAINABILITY BLOG?! No, not exactly. It’s a little more nuanced than that. To cut through the green BS noise brands are flangin these days, we have to get creative with the way we incorporate sustainable messaging into our marketing. Odds are, sustainable business choices have a positive impact on other areas that are top of mind for customers. For example, Method isn’t usually categorized as a green cleaning product, but environmental stewardship is a key part of their mission. At point of sale they lead with what consumers care about (effectiveness and design) to sell bottles. Their tagline, “People Against Dirty” is a double entendre alluding to their mission to clean your home and the planet. They use their website to go deeper into their values and outline metrics and goals related to corporate responsibility in their Benefit Blueprint.


Just because brands are doing the work to lessen their impact doesn’t mean it should play the lead role in their next marketing campaign. And just because it seems like customers don’t care about sustainability doesn’t mean they should keep it out of external communications. Brands should ask – why are we doing this sustainable thing in the first place? How does it help achieve our mission? Why would our customers care? And where would they go to learn more about it? The answers to these questions should shape your approach to sharing these stories with the public in a relevant (and sometimes more subtle) way.




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