In 2021, $284 billion was spent on advertising in the United States. That’s a staggering number, representing a lot of power.
Our agency specializes in working with sustainable brands to grow their business and amplify their impact. We are a certified B Corporation, upholding stringent standards of work and wellbeing to ensure we use business as a force for good, whether it be via stakeholder governance, environmental impact, transparent business practices, or doing our part to ensure equality and inclusion are at the core of the work we help clients put out into the world.
As an advertising agency, we don’t create tangible products or design the actual programs and solutions that transform lives and reduce impact on the planet.
But we do play an important role in understanding what motivates people to take action, and in helping people see the value in choosing products that are better for the environment and ultimately enrich their own lives. The idea is to influence culture for the better.
And that is what drives our mission, and has pushed us toward the idea of “regenerative marketing.”
What Is Regenerative Marketing?
We often ask ourselves at KSV, how will we use the power of advertising? And how can we do good by our clients, consumers, and the planet?
The answer? Through regenerative marketing.
“Regenerative marketing must do more than just reduce impact, which is often the focus in corporate sustainability,” writes Katie Hicks in an article for Marketing Brew about a new TikTok ad campaign for Tazo Tea. “Instead, [regenerative marketing] requires leaving a net-positive impact on the environment and local community.”
Or, as Jay Friedlander, professor and founder of the sustainable business program at College of the Atlantic puts it, when you practice regenerative marketing, “You are actively pursuing and creating healing versus just being less bad.”
This is important. Not just because we are driven to do what’s right — but because it’s what the customer now expects of us. The Edelman Trust Barometer found that “80% of consumers agree businesses must play a role in addressing societal issues; they want a company to take actions which... improve social conditions, and make the world a better place.”
Here’s how regenerative marketing can affect consumer culture, behavior, and more — and how advertisers and marketers can work better while doing good.
Marketing influencing American culture isn’t a new concept. Take, for instance, the story of the Percy Kent Bag company. During the Great Depression, families had to "make do" with what they had, wasting nothing that could be recycled or reused. Women took thriftiness to new heights of creativity, transforming the humble feed sacks and flour bags into dresses, underwear, towels, curtains, quilts, and other household necessities.
Manufacturers got wind of their bags’ other uses and innovated their package design by decorating them, creating a solution to a current societal challenge, restoring dignity to those who needed it most, while simultaneously giving themselves an edge over the competition.
The Percy Kent Bag Company hired top textile designers from Europe and New York City to create stylish prints with colorfast dyes. Suddenly, feed companies were being encouraged to use the latest dress print bags, and feed supply stores began to resemble fabric stores.
And with this, accessible fashion was born. Fashion was no longer just for the wealthy.
Now, did these brands set out with the noble cause of transforming culture and making fashion accessible to everyone? No. A brand saw an opportunity to adjust their packaging in a way that benefited their business while benefiting society. Fashion culture was transformed as a result. The Percy Kent Bag Company and others were adding a net-positive impact for the community with their extra bag design — that’s old-school regenerative marketing.
Fast forward to today. We’re not in the business of feed bags, but we can still influence culture through our actions as a company. We want to give customers solutions to their problems, and food for thought, while helping them understand the products, services, and brands they love.
Part of shifting culture is shifting perception. In recent years we’ve all experienced how media and content have the powerful ability to “normalize” values or behaviors and shape how we perceive historic events, countries, people, and things. Marketers have the power to normalize things that help consumers and communities.
For instance, we partnered with the US Committee for Refugees & Immigrants on a campaign designed to shift the perception of immigrants by bringing humanity to the forefront of the conversation. This felt extremely important, given that 100 million people annually are displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations — and because nearly half of all refugees are children under the age of 18.
We could have filled this video with facts and figures about the Syrian refugee crisis and it would have been informative but it would not have achieved our objective. Instead, we were able to tell a complex story without any words. The shift in expression from one of fear to one of joy on this little girl’s face as she ran away from danger and toward the other children communicated all we needed to say: You don’t have to be born here to belong here.
Another example of changing perception was Lyft’s “Cities Talk Back” campaign, brought to life shortly after President Trump announced his “Muslim ban” denying refugees entry from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The campaign boldly elevated the stories of the immigrant community across the country with the core message: Many Lyft drivers are immigrants, and many more are from immigrant families — all living in a nation founded by immigrants.
In addition to taking an authentic stand and communicating their core values, the campaign was also a success from an ROI standpoint: In just two weeks, the campaign generated 35 million impressions and more than 3 million content engagements, and for the first time ever Lyft surpassed Uber in the Apple App store for downloads.
Communicating values and initiatives, whether environmental or social, is not limited to big brands. The key is ensuring that you are always able to connect the values you are communicating to your brand's business case to ensure your words and your actions are authentic and have purpose.
We also have the opportunity to think broader about what marketing is and how we can use it to introduce solutions to real problems.
Take, for instance, this “water billboard” erected in Lima, Peru in 2013. Despite its coastal location, Lima receives nearly no rain, creating challenges in consistent water supply for the city's residents.
But because Lima experiences high humidity, Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology was able to partner with an ad agency to create a billboard that generates drinking water from air. While the billboard fulfilled its role as an advertising tool for courses at Lima’s University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) it also harvested moisture directly from the air, which was then processed through a filtration system.
The filtered water flowed into a pipe at the bottom of the billboard, supplying the neighboring community with clean water. What better way to create an impact with marketing than to demonstrate a tool for real change?
Now, what if driving impact requires a change in behavior? After all, many brands are challenging the status quo and working to transform their industries. But part of that transformation journey will require change on the part of the customer.
Inertia is a powerful force and getting people to change their behavior is hard. That’s because habits are used as shortcuts by our brain to simplify the decision making process. Just ask any smoker. Indeed, smoking during pregnancy more than doubles the risk that a baby will be born early and weigh less than 5.5 pounds. It also more than doubles the risk of stillbirth.
For a Vermont Department of Health anti-smoking campaign, we needed to shift women's perception of the harm of smoking from ME to WE and so we created a campaign that was bold, stark, and simple: When you smoke, your baby smokes.
Our campaign featured an image of an infant in utero drawn by wisps of smoke that was unsettling and impossible to ignore. We used emotional tension to bring to life the impact that the behaviors of pregnant women can have on their growing children.
Emotional triggers can make people move — and make moves of their own. But we as advertisers need to be careful about how we use emotions to result in intended behavior.
Fear is a primal instinct intended to protect us from things like this. Immediate threats to our safety and security. Fear is a powerful motivator but it is a temporary one. As soon as the threat is gone, our behavior reverts.
Leaning too heavily on fear could be one reason we’ve failed to make progress on key issues related to climate change. Climate communications tend to feel too big and be overly reliant on fear; the consumer has “apocalypse fatigue.”
In fact, an overreliance on crisis-framing in storytelling actually depresses support for issues.
Instead, when it comes to climate change and other issues, a vision of what success looks like helps turn passive audiences into active advocates for change. Even if our audience doesn't immediately take the suggested action, awareness that solutions exist is a win in itself—further dismantling the view that change is hopeless.
National Grid is an international utility with a large presence in the northeastern U.S., committed to combating climate change. We worked with them to develop a message that would communicate to current and future customers the steps National Grid was taking to ensure a more sustainable future by embracing the concept of hope, acknowledging and celebrating the many accomplishments and challenges humankind has overcome.
The idea is to bring hope and a vision for a better future to light in a way that makes it feel possible. This belief underpins action — including changing consumer behavior.
In short: When brands no longer create products to be consumed but instead solutions to needs and advertising no longer makes ads but makes content, you have the opportunity to influence culture.
So here’s advice to brands out there: Make products that add value and transform experiences. Marketers should make content that gives people hope and that they actively seek to consume. When you do that, you are influencing their world view — and getting something good done.