Cape Town Tourism - Table Mountain

The ABCs of sustainability marketing

Totem Tourism, a sustainable tourism market leader, and Ogilvy Sustainable have issued the Sustainable Tourism Marketing Guide 2011. The guide aims to enable tourism businesses to enhance their brand by ethically communicating sustainable practices, to develop new business and to change consumer behaviour. The below article is an extract from and direct summary of the 2011 guide for the benefit of Cape Town Tourism’s members.

A departure from the too often niche focus of sustainable tourism marketing, the guide gives tourism businesses the tools to appeal to a broad market, taking into account consumer trends and a more frugal consumer post the global economic crisis.

First things first: it’s important to revisit the definition of sustainable tourism. It is defined as ”a global approach to tourism that covers planning, development and the operation of tourism, recognising the wider negative impacts generated, and attempts to increase the positive impacts along the four pillars of sustainable development: environmental, social, cultural and economic.”

Tourism companies like &Beyond, TUI and Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts are blazing a sustainability trail in developing an authentic, sustainable brand. In telling the consumer about your sustainable tourism product, how do you craft practical, realistic and sustainable messages that appeal to a wide audience? And who is listening?

Most companies rely on a rational argument, citing facts, figures and percentages when telling consumers about the sustainability of their business. The reality is that many psychological factors are at play when a consumer makes a travel decision, and logical information alone is unlikely to change behaviour if sustainability does not serve the individual’s interest. How do you do that? Show them the money! Do it with love.

The HSBC Climate Confidence Monitor 2010 found that while 40% of global consumers indicate they are willing to purchase green products, only 4% of consumers actually do when they have the opportunity.

The majority of consumers still perceive the sustainable option to be more expensive. Managing waste, ethical procurement and buying local holds financial benefits for the company that should translate into savings for the consumers’ pocket – show them these. Saving money, however, doesn’t explain the runaway success of recycling schemes that hold very little financial incentive. Individuals might start the habit of putting the green plastic bin outside every week, or a nagging child might compel them to do this, but the sense of accomplishment from ”doing good” is what results in lasting behaviour change.

When setting the tone of your communications, it is important to avoid pious, doom-and-gloom or just plain boring voices. In the words of David Ogilvy, who founded Ogilvy Public Relations, “you cannot bore a person into buying your product; you can only interest them in buying it”. Information alone will not compel individuals to change their behaviour. The internet is awash with tips for sustainable living, and even governments advertise carbon-neutral practices, but the question at hand is motivation.

The report cites several good case studies of how to navigate the issue of motivation through innovation, product development and packaging.

The Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG) entered into an agreement with the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford to support the department’s research into conservation. In doing so IHG asked its Priority Club Rewards (PCR) members to contribute to the donation by switching from paper to online statements. This results in a $40 000 saving per year, half of which is donated to the department. In October, PCR members will be able to track the progress of the research project and speak directly to researchers on the site, leading to more than 330 000 members having made the switch from paper to electronic statements.

Three marketing tips for sustainability marketing:

A. Avoid greenwashing

Greenwashing – presenting your company to be more environmentally responsible than it actually is for the purpose of its public image – is a serious problem for the travel industry. It erodes consumer trust and contaminates the credibility of establishments that genuinely practice sustainability.

Be clear in your communication with your consumers, avoid technical climate-change terms and avoid confusing your audience.

More tips from the Sustainable Tourism Marketing Guide below:

  • Avoid using fluffy language or words with no meaning, like ”eco-friendly”
  • Don’t make claims you cannot substantiate
  • Apply the theory of relativity. If you offer only one responsible tour in your stable, this does not make you a responsible company nor should it be the focus of your communications
  • The basis of your environmental claims must be clear – don’t hinge your campaign on methods or facts that are contested in the scientific community
  • Creating your own ”green label” to identify your responsible products to consumers is ill advised – it is considered a greenwash classic and the label will have to compete with the trademarks of established sustainability certification schemes like Fair Trade in Tourism etc.
  • Avoiding greenwash begins long before your creative team sits down to write. Sustainability is required at the heart of your business, from the planning phase to product design, ensuring employee buy-in through to the creative process, launch of the product and its lifecycle

B. Planning your approach

It is assumed that focusing on a small story of responsible tourism in your organisation, or making a small change to an existing programme, will get you heard. Usually, it won’t. Nor will using a string of green buzzwords in your communications.

The planning phase is when the majority of your work should be done and energy spent to ensure substantial and authentic change is implemented in your product and driven up and down the value chain.

  • Define what the responsible offer is. Get busy colleagues to read your proposal; if it’s not clear to them in the little time they have available, it won’t be to the consumer
  • Define your vision and engagements. Ask who you are, not who you wish you were as an organisation. Sustainability is not an opportunity to reinvent your brand; for it to be perceived as sincere, sustainability needs to be embedded into the DNA of your brand
  • Focus on the facts. Show consumers concrete information on the benefits of their sustainable holiday package

C. Communicating

Having a great story to tell makes the storyteller’s job much easier.

Our training as marketers can let us down in the sustainability space where hubris is considered a dirty word, and your approach should rely on transparency rather than a strong emphasis on the sustainable features of your product. The upside of this is it could allow your organisation to discover fresh new voices and build a trusting relationship with your customers.

  • Make honesty a priority
  • Find strength in humility – great brands are grounded and acknowledge their limitations with a commitment to improve
  • Find your inner storyteller but use perspective on how significant the story is in the bigger picture
  • Do it with love by tapping into emotional arguments rather than being purely rational. A doom-and-gloom voice inspires apathy by making people feel helpless in the face of climate change. A voice of wonder and awe, and a positive attitude that focuses on the solution, will get you much further
  • Embrace the detail. Provide details about why you’re green at every turn – consumers can read in between taglines like “help save the Earth” or “good for the planet”
  • Show them the money. Distant ”planet-saving” messages have been replaced with direct ”money-saving” benefits, promoting the double ECO (economic and ecological), eg, Whirlpool claims that the Cabrio HE washer will save the consumer up to $900 in lifetime water and energy
  • Show, don’t tell. Give your consumers a platform to tell others about your offer without the distraction of you blowing your horn. Social media and websites like Tripadvisor increasingly play a role in this arena

While it is not an easy road to travel, merging great sustainable practices with great marketing can lead to groundbreaking work, an invested team, loyal consumers and increased sales.

*The Sustainable Tourism Marketing Guide 2011, Sustainable Tourism Report Suite published by Totem Tourism in partnership with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide is available for sale at ₤100. For more information visit

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