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Branding for the good life, within our limits

Nov 16

With the rise of purpose-driven companies embarking on campaigns that unpack their essential role in the hyper consumerism and climate change — imagine, just for a second, what would branding look like if it spoke in unison with the scientific principles and carbon reduction targets that we will see being discussed on stage by global leaders at COP27 this year?

Patagonia, the global outdoor clothing brand, comes to mind as a company leading its industry in striking a clear directive with their customers, choosing to incorporate the reality of the climate crisis into their branding and communication with the public. Over its history, Patagonia has embodied environmental and business positions that give it the ability to speak bluntly about consumerism which in turn strengthens its brand and market position.

At COP27 this year there will undoubtedly be a mix of pathways and renewed commitments towards net zero carbon emissions by governments and companies. These commitments will most likely pertain to aspects of society that are more infrastructural and less constituted by brands, yet there remains an opportunity for these global actors to downsize these large conversations on carbon reduction roadmaps and connect them to everyday behavior and lifestyle choices.

However, COP events are known for skirting around discussions on the behavior and lifestyle choices of middle class and rich consumers. An oversight that is a perplexing conundrum as this key demographic can shift carbon reductions in major way. Simply put, “the top 10 percent of these consumers are responsible for 44 percent of consumption related emissions” (Brookings Institute).

The United Nations’ Environment Programme concludes that two-thirds of global emissions are linked to household consumption — meaning — how, what, and why we consume should be up for discussion — especially when it comes to the privileged corners of society that can make these purchasing distinctions.

A growing body of research highlights the immense possibility that reductions around lifestyle choices can be achieved in what remains of this pivotal decade for climate action to the penultimate climate deadline of 2050. Potentially a 20 to 37 percentage reduction in global emissions are linked to actions regarding behavior change (Williamson et al, 2018).

From how we see it, there remains a gap between the global commitments around a green moral and how governments and industry’s position themselves, and how this message is then passed on to their citizens or consumers. And for us at Kontrapunkt, we see the huge potential in bringing the weight of sustainability concepts into our role as strategists and as a brand agency.

Looking at the huge potential a shift in lifestyle choices may have in reducing global emissions, we thought what would be the right point for intervention? What we found is that the future of living (Circularity Gap Report, 2022) will have a huge impact on carbon reduction, with the amount of living space per person being a key metric for carbon reduction (Circularity Gap Report, 2022).

When it comes to living space — Western nations and Danes in particular are some of the biggest consumers of floor space in the world (Ellsworh Kreb, 2019). Recent research within the field of absolute sustainability states that a 60 percent reduction in floor area consumption is needed to stay within the planet’s resource capacity — regardless of how energy efficient our buildings become (Andersen et al, 2020). Public policy research points to promoting a range of 30 to 35 sqm per person in Western nations (EEB, 2021) — with the average Dane currently living on 52 sqm per person. This reorientation or move towards downsizing is something that these researchers say is “physically possible, but culturally challenging” (Andersen et al, 2020).

There has been growing momentum from architects in developing prototypes for smaller living and shared spaces that can operate within the context of these carbon reduction frameworks. And some regional building industries are beginning to incrementally shift to a holistic reduction roadmap towards a safe and just operating space for humanity.

However, even with this mobilization, getting people to want to live in these spaces is an entirely different story. What is standing in the way of a massive shift in our living preferences? Where is the consumer-side demand for spaces that support human and planetary health? What are these cultural barriers that exist in different social and economic contexts that can be unfolded and strategically targeted?

And at this point, you are probably asking yourself:

Why do we care about this at Kontrapunkt? Well… what if we used our expertise in storytelling, future foresight, and client consultancy to help shape the consumer behaviors around urban living that we need in the future?

Can we unfold and separate the cultural challenges in this example around reductions in living space through storytelling and communication? Could strategic storytelling help bridge the divide between what is scientifically and critically needed in regards to behavior change and how these choices are currently branded?

We would be remiss to say that cultural shifts around behavior change have happened quite rapidly in the past decade, with consumer desire for private car ownership declining while seeing a boost in shared mobility services (Zhou et al, 2020) — something that was a rarity in the consumer landscape of the 1990s or early 2000s. The rise of popular terms in Scandinavia around “flight shame” or “train bragging” for regional travel around Europe has seen rail services positioning their branding and communications capitalizing on this popular phenomena.

Behaviors are changing all the time, so how can we merge branding and sustainability frameworks to promote what a good life looks like within the boundaries of our planet? Can we use branding to shift the consumer’s perspective that yearns for more and more on a planet that can only provide so much?

Branding, historically speaking, has been for the purpose of directing consumer choice, storytelling, and, let’s just say it, promoting consumption. Arguably, as an industry, it has acted in ways that have compounded society’s behavior at large to over-consume while filling the pockets of shareholders. As the world begins to tilt towards a paradigm of change, what role will branding play in it?

Andre Sanchez Montoya

Junior Strategist

Reach out to Andre to learn more about this project or how we can help you.