Editor's Pick

Emerging marketing challenges for sustainability organisations in 2024

Fergus Hay is an expert in commercial transformation, product innovation, positioning, and founder of marketing and fundraising advisory firm Elysian Fields. We recommend heeding his advice.

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Investment and grants in cleantech startups have fallen just over 40% over the last 12 months. At the same time, COP28 has shown that the finance industry needs to adopt transition technology much faster. This means emerging sustainability businesses are going to face both a challenging funding environment and renewed attention on their overall sector in the new year – i.e., less money and more competition.

We’ve worked with multiple ESG focused businesses in the last two years, including Europe’s largest food-tech VC, a pioneering sustainability traceability startup and one of the world’s most famous sustainability-focused brands. What we’ve learned from these businesses and their competitors is that the most common barriers to efficient scale, sales and funding for businesses operating in this “hot market” are of a marketing nature:  1) they’re not listening to their buyers enough and 2) they don’t know how to differentiate their product from the competition.

The reason for this is that many emerging sustainability businesses tend to have a somewhat myopic vision of the market. They have a predominantly inward focus and an obsession with their own technology and its novelty, rather than how their innovations solve distinct and immediate problem for the buyer. And if they do, they don’t always know how to articulate it in a way that provides credibility that they can solve the problem best.

As a result, these businesses often find themselves outshone by “more exciting” competitors who, despite offering inferior products, capture the market’s attention – just because they’re better at marketing. This frustration is made worse by the new products coming to markets everyday, led by marketing savvy people with less technical understanding but more compelling messaging.

We suggest sustainability businesses who have identified a lack of performance of their marketing efforts take a three-pronged approach:

Go deep on the immediate buyer’s problem

Most technically advanced products have been created with engineering insights. Buyer insights tend to be lacking. Developing true buyer empathy is harder for technical founders who struggle to put themselves in the shoes of non-experts. Map the ‘buying cohort’ – the group responsible for procurement decisions, and understand the customer’s personal challenges in the sale. Map the blockers to a sale: the travails the customer will have to navigate in order to get the purchase though. Then answer each of their challenges through the buying journey. Competition will be internal as well as external, so make the customer the hero and they can sponsor your product past the many obstacles to purchase you will face together.

Create your competitive ‘Unfair Advantage’

By intensely listening to market needs, sustainability businesses can unearth unique insights that can form the basis of a competitive ‘Unfair Advantage’ – how you can truly articulate your differentiator to out manoeuvre competition. The ‘Unfair Advantage’ marketing system is composed of a distinctive positioning and marketing strategy (shaped from the macro and micro insights gathered in step 1), and a subsequent ‘Growth Machine’ focused on implementing the strategy and delivering leads. This approach can help sustainability businesses shift away from complex or generic value propositions to tailored messages that resonate deeply with their audience’s needs and aspirations. For instance, we listened to the needs of investors and helped shift the VC fund Blue Horizon from a positioning of funding alternative proteins, to a positioning of building a sustainable food supply chain for alternative proteins. As a result, new funding avenues and backers emerged.

Craft a Provocative Narrative

The third step will be to develop a compelling, provocative narrative to make the challenge your technology solves come to life in a way that makes people pay attention.

Remember, the heart of your business isn’t just your product or technology – it’s the people you’re solving problems for. So, paint a simple vision of a future where your technology – no matter how niche or complex – plays a crucial role in creating an overall more sustainable, efficient, and equitable world. For example, our client TrusTrace is a data platform for compliance and traceability in the fashion industry.

We helped them move from a category-generic message to a position around helping clients prove their impact and secure competitive advantages from the traceability process. This point of view transcends the immediate category narrative around the importance of traceability and instead engages with the needs of the CEO and CFO. In doing so the Sustainability and Supply Chain immediate buyers become heroes and the customers unlock significant new value from using the product.

Regardless of the climate or sustainability benefits of products, the B2B buying journey through procurement and C-level sign off is the same: demonstrate outstanding value and make the sponsoring client the hero along the way. With deep insights into the Buying Cohort’s needs, and a stand out position, all sustainability B2B businesses can find ways to convert sales quicker to meet the demands of investors and the team. Without these elements, similarly, all businesses will flounder.

More on sustainability: 

Inside the exhibition using poetry and photography to restore nature

The simple steps towards climate action everyone can take

How to put sustainability at the centre of your digital transformation

Image: Kaleidico



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