By Whitney Dailey
Earth Day has come a long way from its humble roots in 1970 as the brainchild of peace activist John McConnell and Sen. Gaylord Nelson. Today, honoring the earth is a month-long affair, with citizens from 192 countries partaking in activities. And this Earth Day promises to be the biggest yet – as world leaders convene to officially sign the Paris Climate Agreement and 1 billion citizens of the globe come together to celebrate the one and only planet we have.
Brand marketing campaigns during Earth Month have dramatically evolved over the years as well. When Cone Communications began tracking Earth Month campaigns back in 2008, companies were hyper-focused on infusing the color green into their efforts, and activations tended to revolve around how many trees could be planted.
Over the last decade, marketers have learned from missteps of greenwashing, and campaigns during the month of April have undergone a transformation. The early landmark campaigns like GE’s “Project Plant a Bulb” and Office Depot’s “Growing Greener” have come and gone, replaced by newer efforts that reflect the growing consumer sophistication around social and environmental issues – and their expectations of companies.
Now, marketers are leveraging Earth Month as a moment in time to communicate commitments and broader efforts in environmental stewardship. Companies are replacing nonaligned tree plantings and community clean-up efforts with a more thoughtful approach: sharing progress and efforts related to specific environmental commitments – whether that’s reducing waste in a supply chain, conserving water or showcasing a company’s role in protecting bees.
Earth Month is reaching maturity – and here are the key learnings we see from tracking the space for nearly a decade:
- Break through with issue-specific efforts: Companies are abandoning broad-sweeping green messaging and breaking through with a clear focus on issues that are material to their business. For Virgin America, this meant prioritizing carbon reductions with its Earth Month campaign. Last year, for each passenger who offset his or her flight using the airline’s onboard seat-back entertainment system, Virgin made a matching donation to the CarbonFund.org Foundation and NatureBridge.
- Prioritize tailored engagement and impact: Earth Month campaigns of the past were all about aspirational environmental messages and one-way communications. Now, new efforts focus on motivating specific audiences to action and impact. American Eagle Outfitters achieved this last year with an Earth Month campaign in partnership with nonprofit Make It Right. The retailer encouraged consumers to bring in old denim in exchange for a 20 percent discount toward a new pair of jeans. The old denim was then shredded and used for insulation in Make It Right’s affordable homes across the country, creating both positive social and environmental impacts.
- Reinforce commitment to current efforts: Although Earth Month can be a crowded time for new announcements or programs, it’s the perfect occasion to reinforce or bolster environmental campaigns or initiatives that are already in place. Aveda is leveraging Earth Month as a way to celebrate its 10-year-strong commitment to protecting clean water and the $38 million it has raised for the issue since 2007. This year, the beauty brand is encouraging consumers to attend a Catwalk for Water fashion show or purchase a Light the Way candle to trigger a 100 percent donation to Global Greengrants Fund.
- Get employees on board: Earth Month is a natural touch-point to rally employees around your company’s environmental commitments and also encourage sustainable behavior in their own lives. 21st Century Fox celebrated Earth Month in 2015 with a range of activities to get employees involved. The company created an easy photo-sharing contest called The Sustainable Life, inviting individuals to share their earth-friendly actions, whether cycling to work or visiting a local park. Fox employees were also invited to participate in the company’s seventh annual Earth Day Fair at its studio lot in Los Angeles where vendors and nonprofits educated attendees about the environment and what individuals could do to make a difference. And employees around the country could participate in locally hosted events like a sustainable food cooking class at Rustico Cooking in Manhattan.
- Don’t shy away: Although there is a lot of noise during Earth Month, don’t shy away from joining the conversation when the topic is so top-of-mind for consumers and employees. H&M is giving new life to its 3-year-old Garment Collecting program with a partnership with musical artist M.I.A. during the month of April. The brand will reinforce its recycling initiative through World Recycle Week (April 18-April 24) and a video featuring M.I.A., highlighting the environmental impact of clothes going to landfills around the world.
Earth Month campaigns have certainly seen their share of growing pains – from lackluster “greening” efforts to disconnected programs that don’t ladder up to a company’s broader environmental programs. Today brands have matured in their communications efforts and are focusing on how to tell stories of their current commitments, amplify impact of efforts, and bring consumers and employees along the journey in an authentic way. Earth Month has moved from a commercial opportunity to a time to honor and celebrate our planet – just as John McConnell and Gaylord Nelson intended.
Image credit: Flickr/Alex Indigo
Whitney Dailey is a senior supervisor at Cone Communications on the CR Insights & Intel team, where she leads the development and distribution of industry-leading research studies, including the 2015 Cone Communications/Ebquity Global CSR Study and 2015 Cone Communications Millennial CSR Study. Her expertise in corporate responsibility, sustainability and social media helps to guide thought leadership at the agency. Whitney is a guest lecturer at Harvard University, Boston College, Boston University and Simmons College and tweets at @WhitneyDailey.