brand story & messaging

What’s really holding big brands back from taking a stand on climate change?

Sandra Stewart | March 18, 2014

“Coke’s Super Bowl commercial supporting immigrants and Chevrolet’s ad tackling gay rights won plenty of attention. Why aren’t brands taking a strong stand on climate change?” asks Free Range Studios CEO Jonah Sachs in Guardian Sustainable Business. It’s an intriguing question, and Sachs is urging global brands to use their communications power to push climate action to the mainstream.

He cites—and counters—three perceived barriers to the big brands stepping up:

  1. Climate change is too hot to touch. (Not so, says Sachs, citing a US study by Yale’s Tony Leiserowitz finding that 70 percent of those surveyed want something done about climate change, compared with 18 percent who are doubtful or dismissive about it.)
  2. There’s no clear action for people to take. (Sachs suggests promoting a carbon tax.)
  3. Climate change just isn’t sexy. (“Any marketer who claims that the impending end of civilization doesn’t make for an interesting, relevant story line isn’t thinking creatively enough,” Sachs says.)

We think Sachs is mostly right, but we suspect he missed two barriers that may really be holding the brands back:

  1. It’s uncomfortable for companies to take a stand if they aren’t walking the talk. Most big brands are not when it comes to climate change.
  2. Most people are not emotionally engaged with climate change in the way they are with the civil rights issues Sachs talks about. And climate ranks way down the list of things Americans worry about, according to a new Gallup poll. Consider that alongside the finding Sachs sites, and it seems that people are intellectually engaged with climate change, but not emotionally.

You might argue that’s what big brand do—create emotional connections. But in the case of issue advertising, usually advocacy organizations lay the groundwork by putting a face on the issue. We haven’t done that with climate change. Climate change could be portrayed as a civil rights issue or an economic issue—it will affect the poorest people the most, and it has significant ramifications for business. And it could have a face. (Read David Fenton’s recent comments on this.)

Yes, brands should take a stand. They can clean up their own acts, to start with. And they can use their marketing dollars to help put a face the impacts of climate change. But we suspect the advocacy community is going to need to give them a boost before that happens. We’d love to be wrong, though—bring it on, big brands.

For the wonky: other looks at the Gallup Poll: Grist coverage and Kate Gordon’s thoughtful analysis


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