The plastic movement: Why now? The power of the right face, the right content & the right time..

21st February 2018

By Jo Vyvyan-Robinson…

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen Iceland commit to go plastic free; McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Evian are promising to overhaul packaging, whilst Diageo and Costa are among many who are phasing out the use of plastic straws.

The government and NGOs have been talking about the importance of reducing plastic for decades, but with little action. In fact, the most significant overhaul of plastic usage in the UK was the introduction of the 5p plastic bag levy in 2015, but that was enforced rather than voluntary. Fast forward to today, and significant, voluntary change is afoot. So why now?

It’s been well documented that David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Blue Planet II, whose episode about the impact of plastic on marine ecosystems, was the tipping point. For the first time, there is mass consumer awareness and understanding of the impact of plastic. David Attenborough and the publication of tough-to-watch film footage sparked a major consumer reaction; we could all see how our own personal consumption was having an impact. And when consumers start to make a noise, brands have no choice but to react and adapt to stay relevant.

So how did one man and a Sunday night BBC documentary lead to such a significant and immediate change in plastic reduction, which government and NGO campaigners have been trying to achieve for decades? I think there is a lot PRs can learn from this – the power of the right face, the right content, the right message, delivered at the right time: key components of a decent campaign that strives to change behaviour, trigger action or drive sales.

1.    Choose an authentic, trusted face for the campaign

The first thing we can learn from this plastic waste reduction movement is the importance of selecting the face of the campaign. David Attenborough has been voted the UK’s most trusted celebrity; he’s been on our screens for decades and is a legendary wildlife filmmaker. If anyone can get us to sit up and listen on how plastic is wrecking our planet, it is him.

In our PR campaigns we need to seek to work with talent that are trusted by our target audience; pure reach and scale of fan base isn’t enough – are their fans engaged? Are they affected by this person? And the person needs to be genuine to the cause – a trusted spokesperson on the issue or topic. And just because they are trusted and well liked doesn’t mean they are an authority on all topics; we should ask ourselves is this person right for my target audience, and do they have authority or expertise in the area in which we are campaigning?

2.    Simple, digestible messaging to ensure mass understanding

In the BBC documentary, Blue Planet II, Attenborough outlines the problems facing marine ecosystems if the problem continues in a visual, straightforward and simple way. Greenpeace, politicians and sustainability experts have been talking about this issue forever, but their message hasn’t got through. It’s too scientific, too big, too removed from our day to day and too negative. People just don’t want to hear bad news all the time, Blue Planet message was it’s not too late to do something that will make a difference and shared examples of what is already being done that’s working.

We should apply the same principles in comms; if it can’t be summed up in a sentence then it’s probably not right or going to do the job required. And make it relatable to consumers, if it’s not deemed relevant to the reader or viewer, journalists won’t publish it.

3.    Content needs to have a role – start with ‘why?’

When done correctly, video can be more powerful than a double page spread in a national broadsheet. In the case of the turtle and the straw up its nostril, it was gritty, heart-breaking and excruciating to watch. But it’s had 10s of millions of views as a result.

When we make branded content, we need to start with why…? Why are we making this video? What reaction do we want to trigger? I’m guessing the ‘why’ for the turtle film was to ensure that every person that watched it questioned their straw usage and hopefully triggered them to reject it when next offered a drink with one poking out the top. It certainly worked for me.

4.    Timing is key

For the BBC documentary the Sunday evening, family viewing slot was key. It was a mass reach show, being broadcast into 10.3 million homes, across generations and different consumer groups. This high level of engagement in the Attenborough documentary and subsequent plastic-related content published since created a perfect media moment for brands. The most impactful stories are those that are culturally relevant and caught up in media story that runs and runs as it builds and evolves, rather than a one-off spike, limited to one day.

Brands also need to be prepared to jump on any opportunity. I’m sure many of the brands that revealed their plans in the last month brought forward announcements planned for later in the year to capitalise on the moment rather than wait and be at risk of being left behind and seen as playing catch-up. Brands should be prepared to be flexible in announcement timings where possible, to get the biggest impact.

5.    Not just a stunt – the importance of strategic, long term brand purpose

It can be tempting to commit to a popular-today ‘quick win’ and jump on the straw-removal-from-drinks-served-in-my-restaurant bandwagon, but that’s a relatively easy change and results in praise and column inches (the Evening Standard launched a ‘Last Straw’ campaign). But what about next week, next month, next year?

Brands need to look beyond reactive and tactical changes to achieve genuine consumer engagement; it needs to be linked to commercial targets and driven by CEO down and shop floor up. Days of CSR departments in silo to the business are over. Purpose and social responsibility needs to be born from within.

Brands that still want to be relevant in five years need to deliver real impact on their waste reduction and not just ‘front of house’ – it’s the hidden waste in the supply chain that needs to be flushed out too, not just where the product comes into contact with the consumer. And it will deliver more than a clear conscience for brands; there is a business case too. One in three people have bought a brand specifically because of its values or behaviours. Two in three consumers feel that brands have a responsibility to give back to society, and over half of consumers have bought a brand or stopped using a brand because of that brand’s behaviour or values (MediaCom 2018). What’s more, Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands accounted for 60% of the company’s growth in 2016 and they grew more than 50% faster than the rest of the business (Marketing Week, 2016).

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