Things we care about.
The Writing’s On The Wall Street
DiCaprio, Pens, and Sustainability Marketing
Picture the scene: we’re in a bustling diner in a dingy corner of outer New York State in 1987. We hear the chatter of voices and the clatter of cutlery, see steam billowing out from the kitchen as a waitress swings the double doors open.
In the midst of the hubbub sits Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the Wolf Of Wall Street himself: he’s surrounded by a motley crew of wannabe stock brokers and salesmen, earnestly convincing them to join his new firm. He challenges Brad, a man he promises “can sell anything”, to demonstrate the principle to the others.
Sell me this pen
“Sell me this pen” he says, handing Brad a nondescript biro. Brad shrugs. “Why don’t you do me a favour,” he tells Belfort in response, “and write your name on that napkin for me.” Belfort leans back in his chair and explains that he can’t, because he doesn’t have a pen. “Exactly” replies Brad, dropping the pen theatrically onto the table, “supply and demand, my friend”.
It’s a cute moment, right? But like Martin Scorcese’s film as a whole, it’s a period piece, a tribute to a way of thinking which only exists in the past. Brad’s sales pitch is a pure encapsulation of classic old-school advertising: create a need for your product, then provide the solution.
But in today’s world, we need more than immediate gratification. Brands need a reason for consumers to keep coming back, not just a one-off exchange based on an immediate need. This is where storytelling comes in.
Benefits, not features
Take a campaign like Tesco’s Love Stories. They’re not following Brad’s lead and just selling you the ingredients you need to make a recipe. They’re selling you the experience of having your family together under the same roof, cooking for them at the end of a long day, and the warm, reassuring sense of togetherness and safety which flows from that scenario.
It’s not the features of a given product which make it attractive, but the benefits which accrue from its presence in your life: an ongoing story in which you’re the star, and the product a vital prop for creating your own happy ending.
While much of the advertising world has already left Brad and Belfort behind, as with Tesco’s approach to storytelling, this shift from features to benefits is one that the sustainability marketing industry is still catching up with.
When brands talk about sustainability, too many of them remain stuck selling pens the same way Brad did in the 1980s: by connecting a problem to a solution, in mechanical and literal fashion.
Storytelling over statistics
Picture the average sustainability-focused campaign, and you’re invariably confronted by a succession of worthy but dated messaging about tons of carbon being offset and kilojoules of energy being saved.
But audiences and consumers have moved past all of that: they’re sophisticated and aware, expecting brands to be subtler and more creative in response. Approach sustainability marketing like you’re Jordan Belfort, and you can easily come across as patronising or, worse, over-righteous and hectoring.
As sustainability strategists and creatives, our job is to come up with something new, and more carefully attuned to the expectations of our audience. The answer is to stop fixating on the eco ins and outs, move past “sell me this pen”, and instead start thinking about sustainability storytelling.
Creating an emotional connection
This can take many forms, but it’s ultimately about telling a story which creates an emotional connection between an audience, a brand and wider sustainability goals, rather than reciting a list of moral imperatives or disconnected statistics.
This eco-certified holiday isn’t great because your tour operator is planting 20 trees on your behalf. It’s great because you planted those specific trees over there, visible from the pool. Your holiday isn’t just a chance for you to unwind but a direct, tangible source of good for the community you’re visiting, allowing you to indulge without compromising on your wider values.
Similarly, that recycled jacket isn’t reducing your carbon footprint by 5% - it’s a marker of your peerless taste and cultural capital, in a society where values have shifted and sustainability is cool as hell: your exclusive ticket to a circular economy of use, recycling and re-use to which everyone else aspires.
Or, perhaps, this sustainable pen isn’t just removing a specific amount of plastic from a stationery company’s supply chain: it’s a pen that gives back to the planet, freeing you from the guilt of endless single-use plastics. Pick it up and feel the weight of all those discarded biros and cap-ends, everything you would otherwise have sent to landfill, magically evaporating as you begin to write.
The Wolf Of Wall Street ends with DiCaprio’s Belfort hosting a seminar on sales technique, walking along a line of rapt attendees and challenging each to “sell me this pen” - the very essence of marketing, condensed into its simplest form, and a question sustainability marketers should be asking themselves too.
While we can’t encourage you to copy Belfort’s other activities - like his infamous drug binges and eventual conviction for fraud - when it comes to selling pens, we reckon he might just have a point.