Brands recognise the need to rethink, to re-advance and to repair

Karen Fraser, co-founder of Weiser Works, on the once in a generation opportunity to place sustainability at the heart of marketing.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


Remember when a government minister declared ‘we’ve had enough of experts?’ As we emerge from the Coronavirus crisis the pre-pandemic comments appear as if from a bygone era. For industry and society at large the importance of experts has never been more apparent. It’s a respect for expertise that Karen Fraser, co-founder of Weiser Works, is perfectly positioned to capitalise on. At a time when the word ‘unprecedented’ is not hyperbole, understanding consumer and business sentiment alike has never been more vital for the industry. 

Expertise is what Fraser delivers in spades. She was awarded an MBE in the Queens New Year’s Honours list for services to advertising, equality and diversity; while her research and consultancy work is rooted in both credibility, conscious business and a continual focus on the kind of work which aims to improve the industry, as well as the experience of the people within it. From her work leading the UK ad industry’s think tank Credos, to her trailblazing Women’s Worth study in partnership with UM London, her research leads industry thinking. 

Her latest work, with global creative production company Tag the ‘Know to Grow’ report is a must-read for progressive marketers.

The grounding of airplanes during the Coronavirus crisis may have led to clearer skies, but for marketers how to achieve and communicate sustainability remains as foggy and at times an overly complex subject. The report unravels some of the complications surrounding sustainability, as well as sharing insights from leading brands on their own sustainability journeys.

The sustainability shift

The industry is currently in the midst of a once in a generation opportunity to reshape work from the better. A unique global reset moment which extends to everything from where and when employees work, to, in the creative industries; how that work is produced and what environmental impact it has.

Fraser explains: “Big shifts in society tend to happen quite slowly, but the convergence of corporations, governments and consumers points to a genuine desire for change.”  She references the ‘acceleration effect of Covid’ explaining that those crystal-clear skies have led to “a heightened awareness amongst both individuals and corporations on their impact on the environment."

This profound ‘reset moment’ is a reappraisal which is not just happening on a personal level. For when Fraser interviewed a range of the UK’s top marketers for the ‘Know to Grow’ report it was clear that sustainability was also high on their business agenda. “Everyone said they had revised their strategy,” she explained, pointing to the rising traction of the notion of the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit, championed by progressive businesses.

There was also awareness of the drive towards transparency. The growth of company reporting on environmental emissions means that companies have to be more active when it comes to sustainability. “Previously this was seen as something for brands like Unilever and the Body Shop, but what was really striking is that the more responsible approach to business. These brands are talking about more than just about the environment, it's about their people too.”

Fraser points to the ways in which brands are taking a holistic approach to corporate responsibility; one which encompasses mental health, wellbeing and diversity and inclusion. While noting that brands aren’t there yet, she says they are not complacent about what it will take to get there. “There was a real sense of brands working towards these goals, they aren’t there yet but we have seen a huge acceleration through the Coronavirus crisis,” she added.  

Big shifts in society tend to happen quite slowly, but the convergence of corporations, governments and consumers points to a genuine desire for change.

Karen Fraser, co-founder of Weiser Works

Bridging the knowledge gap

This honest understanding from marketing leaders of the need to commit to change was clear throughout the research, which underlined that good intentions alone will not drive sustainable change. Fraser points to a ‘knowledge gap’ between brands wanting to achieve changes to become more sustainable, yet not quite knowing how to get there.

With the backdrop of the commentary surrounding greenwashing in advertising as a whole, a question remains as to whether the sector of sustainability as a whole has something of a marketing problem. Have consumers perhaps become immune to ads pulling on their heartstrings. While businesses faced with the economic fallout from the Coronavirus crisis may to feel that addressing sustainability is in itself an unnecessary cost, or perhaps a distraction from the business of economic recovery?

The opposite is in fact true. The pandemic which emptied our skies of planes overnight also grounded the global production industry. Gone were exotic filming locations and instead brands had to mend and make do with stock video, remote and then local shoots. 

It was a revolution in production which not only reduced costs hugely, but Fraser reports that brands shared they saw no reduction in effectiveness. Far from being a disadvantage this sustainable approach to production is a huge marketing moment. “We had this complete reappraisal of the creative process,” explains Fraser. “Everyone was open to challenge what had been done before.” It was a shift which she believes has led to a much bigger role for production partners such as Tag. “Big brands have big ambitions and that extends to sustainability,” she adds.

I don’t honestly think that this is going to be a choice for business, it makes practical sense for businesses to be on the front foot with this.

Karen Fraser, co-founder of Weiser Works

Industry consumption

Fraser underlines that this shift in production is about far more than just shooting TV adverts. The marketing industry is a huge consumer in all kinds of marketing materials from in-store media displays to leaflets and brochures. She believes there is more that brands can do to lower their environmental impact. For example, Tag has worked closely with Telefonica to create an entirely recycled in-store activation. If sustainability shifts to becoming part of a campaign’s very inception it is much easier to make a positive impact.

It’s a shift that she believes will become mainstream and not just the preserve of brands which have historically marketed themselves on an ethical basis. “What has happened for businesses and consumers alike is that we all want easier ways to make the right choices and increasingly that shift will be expected.” 

Beyond peak purpose 

Despite this fundamental shift there remains a narrative in marketing that purpose is a distraction from the business of selling. A fact reflected in the growing ranks of marketing commentators and authors growing their brand by putting purpose down.

Yet far from reaching peak purpose all signs point to the fact that businesses will need to become more environmentally sound. “The government has made really bold commitments to reducing carbon and emissions,’ says Fraser and explains that many leaders believe that taxes will be on the horizon.

“I don’t honestly think that this is going to be a choice for business, it makes practical sense for businesses to be on the front foot with this,” she adds, 

Then of course there is pressure from consumers; who are looking for ways to offset or dial down the environmental impact of their own consumption. “What we are seeing now is polarisation, we liked shopping locally, but we are all hitting the button on Amazon. But with the new administration in the US committed to the environment it stands to reason there will be more pressure or incentives for businesses to act more sustainably,” explains Fraser.

Yet while there is a desire for more sustainable options amongst consumers and businesses alike; there is not always a clear view of how to make change. With this knowledge gap comes a huge need for industry experts like Fraser, who have long understood the conflicted and at times confusing buying choices of consumers and what they mean for brands in the long-term. “It will become cheaper to take more sustainable options and as an industry we have a role to play to find more ways to make better, cheaper choices,” she adds. 

Everyone is in a very different place; some brands have been on this journey for six years. Others are just starting out. But there are so many opportunities to do things better; don’t go back to how things were just because that’s how things used to be.

Karen Fraser, co-founder of Weiser Works

Rethink, Re-advance and Repair

Having spent the past months interviewing some of the brightest marketing brains in the business; what was Fraser’s key takeaway from the research? She shares that she came away feeling a lot more optimistic about the future for sustainability in marketing. “I thought there may well have been a lot more cynicism about the need for change, but brands really recognise the need to rethink, to re-advance and to repair.”

At the helm of her own founder-led business, which has thrived in the midst of the global pandemic Fraser is clear-sighted on the need for the industry to overcome the crisis, yet at the same time hold onto the hard-fought learnings of 2020. “The brakes have been on for the last year. As we return to normal and the brakes come off the biggest challenge will be to hold on to what we’ve learned,” she explains.

She believes this is particularly vital when it comes to sustainable business, explaining: “Everyone is in a very different place, some brands have been on this journey for six years. Others are just starting out. But there are so many opportunities to do things better; don’t go back to how things were just because that’s how things used to be.”

While marketers are far from the finish line when it comes to embracing and embedding sustainability into every aspect of the production process, the leadership and support of Tag and Fraser means far more brands are out of the starting blocks.

Download Tag's latest report, Know to Grow, now



Picture credit: Sarah Turton Photography: 

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