brand story & messaging, sustainable business

We decode the DNA of sexy sustainability marketing

Thinkshift | December 2, 2014

When we embarked on our new mission to make sustainability sexy, we promised we weren’t going to wing it. We’ve been working on cracking the code for sexiness in marketing—that magic combination of qualities that creates magnetic attraction and inspires an “I want that” reaction.

We think we’ve found it. We’re calling it (provisionally) the HELIX code: Humor, Emotion (or Empathy), Looks, Intelligence and the X factor. Marketing that’s sexy has at least one of these elements, usually more. Making susty sexy—whether you’re talking about a product, service or behavior change campaign—requires identifying those qualities in sustainability benefits and playing them up. Here is a sketch of our code work for the first three elements.

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 consistently finds that funny ads are more memorable and likeable. A related finding: neuroscientists say that humor activates the brain’s reward system.

So—humor, good. And we’re not just talking about jokes. Whimsy counts too, along with being wry, silly and playful (think “Story of Stuff” or “Solar Freakin’ Roadways”). Humor is tricky—we don’t all find the same things funny. But if you 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
Susty marketing needs to hit people in the id. Any product or service worth having solves problems or satisfies desires, and the best do both. But marketing sustainability 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?) Brain imaging research shows that people rely most on emotions—feelings and experiences—when evaluating brands.

There are plenty of ways tap emotions with marketing, 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 and Apple have proved, good design sells—to a broad market and at any price range. Some sustainable brands clearly know this—Method is the best-known susty example of building a brand based on looking good. But many brands seem stuck in a DIY, low-budget aesthetic that tries to say “authentic” but really says “inferior, crunchy, not cool.” Looks do matter, from beginning to end—in product design and packaging, and in the company’s graphic identity, website and collateral design. For growth companies, this is not a place to cut corners. It can’t just be lipstick on a pig, either—susty products often have superior functionality, and they should show it off.

We talk about the two absolutely essential elements of the HELIX sexy susty code—intelligence and the X factor—in our Dec. 9 post. We’re looking for examples of all these qualities in action in the marketing of sustainable products, services and campaigns—please comment and clue us in.


  1. […] Last week we outlined the first three elements of our HELIX code: Humor, Emotion (or Empathy) and Looks. This week we focus on final and most important elements: Intelligence and the X Factor. Sustainability marketing that’s sexy checks at least one of these boxes. […]


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