Marketing and Sustainability: Can the Cat Help the Hummingbird?


This article offers a sequel to the famous Hummingbirds tale, adding a controversial character, the cat, who may in the end help fight the calamities of climate change. But here is the original story first:

Once, when a huge fire was raging in a forest, most animals either stood paralyzed or started running for their lives. Except for the Hummingbird, who started flying back and forth from the pond to the flames, each time fetching a few drops of water in its beak to douse the fire.

The elephant was intrigued. He asked, “Why are you doing this? You are too small, you won’t stop the fire!” And the hummingbird answered, “I know, but I’m doing my part, I’m doing the best I can.”

The conclusion could suggest that if all of us, as consumers, play our part in fighting climate change, so should the corporate world. But big organisations are like Elephants, powerful, but also risk averse and often slow movers. That’s when the Marketing people come into play.

Marketers are like cats, agile and good at charming consumers. But do people really trust marketers talking about sustainability? Can the Marketing cat really offer help to a Consumer bird, the hummingbird being a symbol for the most engaged individuals?

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Poor reputations for cats

Unfortunately advertising executives form part of one of the most mistrusted professions globally, and ‘greenwashing’ is somehow seen as a by-product of marketing. After all, when Marketing people endeavour is to push people to consume more, could people see them as accountable for sustainability? A marketer’s natural grandiloquence, to say nothing about their occasional misconduct, would simply prevent hummingbirds from approaching.


When we think about driving positive social change, marketers are not the first to come to mind. And yet, consider that those working for health, or environmental, or social causes have created some of the most effective campaigns. Promoting tobacco control, sexual health, or animal protection,  have helped evolve consumer behaviour at scale for society’s greater good.

On the commercial side, a recent survey by World Federation of Advertisers shows that Marketers realise they are lagging behind regarding sustainability. And that they lack expertise as well as dedicated resources. And corporate environment often locks them into conflicting priorities and timeframes.


Hummingbirds Can’t Make it Alone

Let’s be honest. At this point, one drop at a time will not save us, considering the urgency and speed of climate change. The best way forward would of course be to educate everyone, but educational campaigns take an enormous effort and don’t always convert to action. And Nudging one person at a time with small interventions will also take too long.

However, a possible way to achieve change at scale quickly would be to light up a social movement, to have more hummingbirds and forest animals join forces, i.e., to have public institutions and the corporate world work together. But how?

Behavioural and social science offer helpful tips in that matter. Researchers from both domains have gathered evidence of key ingredients required to trigger social change. We have selected 5 that we believe are critical in a consumer/brand collaboration.

  • Reframing the narrative in a rewarding way: delivering collective purpose and what’s in it for each individual
  • Make the “early adopters move” salient: showcasing role models and giving confidence to shy consumers to step out and engage social groups around them
  • Nudging “Better for the Planet alternatives”: making it easy to develop and adopt alternative sustainable innovations
  • Engaging and empowering communities: getting groups to connect emotionally and coordinating regional collective actions
  • Providing feedback and shaping social norms: encouraging early successes and progressively establishing new standards in society.


And What if Cats Could Really Help?

Those of you who are familiar with the marketing industry may have noticed that the above requirements are all part of essential marketing skills:

  • Defining purpose and crafting storytelling
  • Studying trends among, and advertising to, consumers
  • Driving sustainable and desirable innovation
  • Designing habit-building products and activations
  • Creating fan groups, sparking emotional contagion with Key Opinion Leaders

Because marketers have always been involved in behaviour change, to the benefit of brands and their fans, not mobilizing their talents would be a missed opportunity. But how can we use their skills while solving the trust issue at the same time?


A possible way out?

Another tale, “The town musicians of Bremen”, gives us a hint for a sequel. In this German story, four old and overworked domestic animals—a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster—decide to run away and become town musicians in Bremen. But before they reach Bremen, they manage to trick and scare off a band of robbers from a house by climbing on each other to create a monster seen from the window.

They scare the villains away by using their vocal instruments all at the same time. Adding on each other’s talent, they fight evil and win, despite their old age. They were bound together by a joint purpose: becoming famous musicians before dying.

So while hummingbirds show us the way—each individual must do what they can—the marketing cat could ride and persuade the corporate elephant to join the effort to put out the fire. He can use its trump to bring more water to fight the fire, and even protect the hummingbird, but it needs a well gripped rider. And certainly, the wisdom and aerial view of the hummingbird.

In the end, only a motivating purpose to bind them together can create a successful team: where everyone can be recognized for their unique contribution to a shared goal.


What to do tomorrow?

To conclude, we believe that renewed governance must be on the agenda for sustainability matters. Old leadership battles and role descriptions are ill-suited to tackling the upcoming challenges. The first question you may then ask yourself is who is which animal in your own forest? And what individual motivations and collective goals would engage key stakeholders, beyond external pressure? This conversation is a good start and can often be triggered sharing some behavioural science learnings, or an animal tale.