From Consumers to Citizens

Grant Hunter, Global Executive Creative Director at Iris, on advertising’s role in tackling the climate crisis and the power of marketing with a purpose.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director


How do you solve a problem like the climate crisis; when you are in the business of selling consumers more stuff? Stuff perhaps that they don’t need and that will almost certainly end up in landfill. This is the reductive question often posed to the advertising industry. Yet headed for landfill too perhaps are the commentators lining up to declare that advertisers and brands are losing the plot with their growing focus on purpose. A focus that is inevitably and incorrectly deemed to be to the detriment of profit. 

For Grant Hunter, Global Executive Creative Director at Iris, the need for purpose-driven brands and therefore purpose-driven marketing is clear. “Generation Z are looking for brands who are going to make a positive change to society. It cannot be tokenism. Our point of view is that we want to be part of that change and accelerate that change.”

The engine for this change is coming from all corners of the industry; from market demand for sustainable products to ever-increasing employee expectations, the simple truth is that making work that matters makes not just for a better society but builds employer brands. Yet equally it demands that agencies lean into fundamentally uncomfortable conversations. 

Hunter points to the impact of lockdown as a catalyst to a wider moment of ‘taking stock’. He explains: “there has always been an uneasy tension when it comes to mass consumption.”  He shares how 3 years ago the Purpose Disruptors came into the agency driving a real acceleration of the focus on the climate crisis. 

“The question is are you going to jump out of the industry or are you going to try and change it from within. That’s the opportunity to create a more sustainable circular economy,” he explains.

Generation Z are looking for brands who are going to make a positive change to society. It cannot be tokenism. Our point of view is that we want to be part of that change and accelerate that change.

Grant Hunter, Global Executive Creative Director at Iris

Change vs Cynicism 

Yet realising the opportunity for change may only be possible if we overcome the collective challenge of cynicism; whether amongst employees or customers. Hunter points to the groundbreaking work Iris undertook with Starbucks, a staple of the global high street.

“There is far more cynicism in the UK than any other market particularly when it comes to big corporations,” says Hunter. Yet the scale of a brand like Starbucks and its place on countless high streets, petrol stations and service stations across the country means that scale can have a hugely positive force on local communities. “Scale can be a hugely positive thing,” adds Hunter. 

Starbucks, who appointed Iris in 2017, notably won the Channel 4 Diversity in Advertising Award for its ‘What’s your name’ campaign.  

While it is easy to be cynical about purpose-driven marketing in theory the impact of this campaign is enough to thaw the hearts of the most hardened marketing cynics. In ‘What’s your name’ the audience meets a young trans boy struggling to navigate his way through a world that insists on still referring to him by his deadname, or the name he was given at birth. It is only when he walks into a Starbucks store and hears his name called out that he feels truly seen. 

Hunter is eloquent in describing the importance of recognising and reflecting lived experience in the campaign. As well as connecting the campaign clearly with Starbucks; a brand designed to be the ‘third space’ between home and work has successfully established itself as a safe space for the trans community. 

Notably, the team worked alongside Mermaids, the charity that provides support for young transgender and gender diverse people and their families.  

The power of storytelling

Reflecting on the Starbucks campaign Hunter points to the power of authenticity. “Tokenism just doesn't work. The creative opportunity is all about connecting, that's what stories do, they can reframe things and help you see things from a different point of view,”

Hunter believes that storytelling also underpins the influence of the industry. “We create desire so what we need to do is make the alternative more desirable than what came before it.” He believes that brands are adapting at pace because they recognise that an ever-increasing range of sustainable startups are coming. 

The power of mass-market creativity

Creating change is not always easy and in our social media driven polarised society, it is all too easy for brands to find themselves in the firing line. Yet, as Iris’ recent work with Arsenal football club and adidas to tackle knife crime underlines, mass-market creativity affords the opportunity to create change at scale, across the political spectrum.

Hunter points to the fact the campaign is not just about raising awareness; but rooted in those vital ingredients; the community, positive action and a long term commitment. “We need to move beyond consumers to citizens and it needs to be done in a way that is authentic and true,” he adds. 

The ‘No More Red’ campaign saw the Premier League team remove the red from Arsenal’s iconic strip for their FA Cup game on January 9th to symbolise an ambition to eradicate bloodshed on London’s street. A creative idea that delivered cut-through and mainstream media coverage in spades. 

Yet it was Arsenal’s long running work in the local community and the partnerships with existing charities which truly set fire to the campaign’s purpose. 

In the wake of the shockwaves of the pandemic, it is perhaps all too easy to retreat into the comfort of cynicism and the perceived security of the status quo. Yet in the midst of this once in a lifetime reset moment; employees and citizens alike are choosing to spend their time and money with businesses that are not content to sit on the sidelines.

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