We decode the DNA of sexy sustainability marketing: part 2

In support of our mission to make sustainability sexy, we’ve been teasing out exactly what constitutes sexiness in marketing—that magic combination of qualities that creates magnetic attraction and inspires an “I want that” reaction.

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.

Intelligence: the hottest quality
Intelligence is the one absolutely essential quality of sexy sustiness—for the simple reason that without it, whatever you’re selling is not sustainable. Truly sustainable products, services and behaviors are just flat-out better, smarter and often more technically advanced than conventional options. But it’s not enough for a new product or idea to be smart—you have to market the smart. And you have to do in a way that makes the genius instantly clear and compelling.

Many companies don’t do this effectively. They worry that the intelligence factor is too complicated to explain, or, conversely, they make it too complicated and most people just don’t get it. To reach a wide audience, we need to frame the intelligence factor in a way that the market will immediately recognize as smart. A good example: Plum Organics baby food pouches are less resource-intensive than glass jars, but their light, bright, no-spill and self-feeding qualities are what make them irresistible to busy parents.

There’s always a way to get to the core of genius. If marketers spend time on nothing else, they should work at this for as long as it takes. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when people instantly see what’s smart about your offering—and feel smart for wanting it.

The X Factor: that je ne sais quoi
The X Factor is the functional opposite of intelligence—it’s not essential, but it can override every unsexy thing about what you’re pitching. Have you ever fallen in love with something and not really been able to explain why? (You may have lied to yourself and rationalized the purchase with some practical advantage.) That’s the X Factor—the utterly compelling thing you can’t pin down.

If we can’t define it, how can we pursue it? The X Factor is akin to cool, but more powerful. Behavioral scientists have defined the essence of cool as a Goldilocks kind of unconventionality—something that’s different from the norm, but not so different it seems bizarre (to the people judging the coolness). The X Factor has that and more—it hits a deep emotional chord, and it lives in a certain tension between prior realities and new possibilities.

Apple’s introductions of both the iPod and iPhone were models of X Factor marketing, creating a physical itch in customers’ palms. We didn’t know we needed them, but we wanted it. This isn’t just about newness (plenty of new things fail), but about mysterious wonderfulness.

We’re looking for examples of all five HELIX qualities in action in the marketing of sustainable products, services and campaigns—please comment and clue us in.

Miss part one of this post? It’s here.

We decode the DNA of sexy sustainability marketing

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.


To make a powerful impression, build (and use) a strong messaging platform

A messaging platform is the foundation of powerful communications. Why?

  • It provides a crisp and compelling explanation of what your company is all about—and that’s especially important if you have a complex or novel product or service.
  • It makes it easy for everyone in your organization to speak clearly and confidently about your work, which expands your marketing reach and turns employees across the business into brand ambassadors.
  • It makes your unique qualities and benefits more memorable—it’s hard for anyone to remember what you do if they’ve heard it described three different ways.

A strong platform rests on four pillars: It’s concrete—it creates a clear picture of what you’re doing. It’s relatable—it’s in plain language, relates new ideas to concepts your audiences already understand and feels authentic to the people using it. It’s catchy—it’s easy to remember and say. And it’s flexible—it’s readily adaptable to the person using it, the communication channel and the audience.

It’s not enough just to build it, though—you have to get people to come to it, embrace it and make it come alive. We’ve found in creating messaging platforms for a range of clients that follow-up support is the key to realizing full benefits. It’s essential that top executives promote the messaging enthusiastically, that everyone understands the benefits of using it and that people have appropriate tools and training in using the messaging in real-life situations.

Do all this and you’ll have powerful messaging—people throughout your company will communicate clearly and consistently about what you do and why it matters, you’ll be effectively positioned in media coverage and people will remember you.

Find more ways to energize your brand communications in Thinkshift’s Strategy>Shift guide, 9 Ways to Make a Powerful Impression. Dig deeper into building a strong messaging platform with Messaging 101: 5 Keys to Unlocking your Verbal Brand.

Want power content marketing? Take a page from networking.

Content marketing can be a powerful tool for business development executives as well as the marketing team. Think of it as networking, which aims to turn acquaintances into friends and business associates. Content marketing similarly builds relationships, turning prospects into clients and partners as you move them through your sales funnel.

With a bow of gratitude to Judy Robinett, author of How to Be a Power Connector, here are key networking tactics that apply to content marketing for SMEs.

Just say hello.
The first step in networking is, naturally, to introduce yourself. Your initial email should provide value and position you as a potential ally. Don’t open with a sales pitch: link to a blog post or attach a report you think they would find useful.

Find common ground.
Delivering content that speaks to the needs of your audience is critical to keeping them interested in you. Consider their job, industry and company in determining what content to send them. You can also learn about someone’s interests if you check out their LinkedIn profile or company bio.

Assume the other person is shy.
You can’t assume people will reach out when they need your help. Give them a reason to stay in touch that requires minimal effort, such as downloading a new piece of content or signing up for your newsletter. Taking that step should be easy and logical. When they know you well (see below), they’ll feel comfortable about developing a business relationship and be open to a sales pitch.

Provide value early and often.
Building a trusting relationship requires delivering value—be helpful and generous at every contact point. People tend to associate and do business with givers, thinking, “If they are this good now, I bet they’re amazing to their paying clients.”

Be present and listen.
This can be a challenge in any situation and with content marketing in particular, which tends to be a one-way communication. It doesn’t have to be. Pay attention to conversations wherever they’re happening—on Twitter, in blog comments, in social media groups—and respond. Pay attention to your own content as well, noting what’s popular and what’s not, and adjust your offerings accordingly.

Content marketing is a long-term strategy that focuses on building relationships. If you think of it as networking and focus on being as helpful as possible, you’ll position yourself as a trusted advisor who’s top of mind when people need your services.

For more content marketing strategies, check out our Strategy>Shift guide, Content Marketing: Myth vs. Reality.

How to fight complacency and spark action: hit a nerve

Marketing gurus often talk about speaking to your audience’s “pain” and showing how you can make it go away. That advice draws on a larger principle: when you hit a nerve, you get attention. That’s true whether you target pains, desires or aspirations. Communications that generate an emotional response put people in a frame of mind to listen to your rational case.

Doing this well and consistently requires truly knowing your audience—what motivates them and what drives them crazy; what hems in their choices and what brings them rewards. Be cautious about assuming that you and your colleagues “get” your audience in this way: even if you are demographic doppelgangers, you’re operating with the tunnel vision of insider knowledge. Do some digging: research that’s as minimal as structured interviews with five tar­get audience members will put you in a much better position to hit a nerve.

Our client Sage Consulting found its market’s nerve by working collaboratively with the first group to go through its training program for healthcare workers. Sage asked participants to talk about the reasons they entered the field and the factors leading to burnout. The resulting conversations were intense and emotional—and revealing. The company incorporated that process into its training programs as a way of opening people up to a new approach; it also used this audience knowledge in its marketing to address objections to the program that people might not state directly.

Want to hit a nerve? Remember these three rules:

  • Find out what people do, not just what they say. What people act on is the true sign of what motivates them.
  • Speak directly to your audience. Your pitch is about them, not you.
  • Address the emotional component—how this problem (or desire) makes them feel, and how they will feel after engaging with you.

Find more ways to energize your brand communications in Thinkshift’s Strategy>Shift guide: 9 Ways to Make a Powerful Impression.