Modern Marketing Brand Purpose Marketing & the Marginalized

State of the Nation: Singapore's youth aren't buying your brand's greenwashing

By Skanda Lokeshwaran | Senior Strategist

January 30, 2023 | 8 min read

Singaporeans see through the dirty truth about your clean image. So, why bother? BLKJ Havas senior strategist Skanda Lokeshwaran ponders the challenges brands face in being green.

Singapore city image

/ Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Pandemic, post-pandemic, S-curve, K-curve, revenge spending, WAR, transitory inflation, full-blown inflation, great resignation, quiet quitting, layoffs, bursting bubbles… Check. Check. Check. And…Recession.

Much like childhood trauma, the big ‘R’, is something marketers instinctively like to bury under shiny new tools (this is NOT written by an AI). Bringing it up does us no good. All signs say that that-which-shall-not happen, will happen. But I’m no economist. This is not a prophecy. However, as a planner, I am in the unique position to have an insider’s outlook across industries.

Here are my signals: 1. Unanimous tightening of ad spends 2. Marketing strategies pivoting from building the long to being seduced by the short (“performance marketing” is officially our industry’s version of the crack epidemic). 3. Increased frequency of pitching for ad-hoc projects rather than establishing long-term retainers.

Skanda Lokeshwaran

It’s time to cut the fat

There’s enough evidence, essays, studies, research, and opinions on what NOT to do during a recession as a marketer. If that hasn’t convinced you, I doubt an essay written over a weekend is going to “disrupt” the status quo. Instead, if you would allow me, I’d like to burst another bubble that is necrotising our already dwindling marketing budgets.

We care

As social beings, virtue signalling - capitalism’s one true love - is inherent. But, does it make sense for a brand to pour money into green virtue signalling? The conventional argument is that tomorrow’s paying customers care infinitely more about what happens to the Earth than the “selfish” generations of the past.

Moving past the irony that businesses overlook addressing today’s paying customers in anticipation of preparing for a more “woke” generation to come - I did what any planner worth his or her salt would do to prove one’s case. I cobbled together convenient data points that I googled to paint the following picture. Kidding. I did something much worse. I stepped out, confident in my capacity to drink multiple cups of Kopi, and spent time speaking to these mystical customers of tomorrow - GenZs, young adults, students, firstjobbers - call them what you want.

“I don’t care!”

Fervently searching for common things to talk about as a millennial way past my prime, we landed on the topic of fast fashion. A fitting topic to understand exhibit Z’s legendary “green” behaviour while talking about the second largest polluting industry. Sustainable jargons were thrown around - low impact washing, low water usage, less chemicals, circular material flow, closed-loop systems, cradle to cradle, organic materials, vegan materials, up-cycled, recycled, eco-friendly, producer friendly, dog friendly, responsibly sourced, almost net-zero, ESG reports, annual reports, social media influencer reports.

Do you care? I asked. “Depends, how much does it cost?” “Depends, what styles and fit do they have?” “It’s nice to see that they are doing something good, but it doesn’t compel me to buy it.” “I don’t care!” - they added. Readily admitting the obvious - “I’ve never read an ESG report of a brand that I use”, or “I don’t understand most of the things they say or the numbers they state”, or the gut-wrenching kicker, “Dude, giving a shit is a luxury, I just started working and I’m barely scraping through the month.”

We hear you loud and clear - Jessica, Gopika, Shusen, Sakshi, Camelia, Alice, Felicia, Yash, Carmelia, Darren, Zining, Huiyu and Viony - giving a shit is indeed a luxury. But, surely they think differently about the brands that say they are as green as grass? Or is it gas?

Consumers have always been smarter than we give them credit for

“I’m supposed to believe your holier-than-thou claim while you’re trying to sell me something?” Sakshi brought to my (now severely caffeinated) attention how one increasingly popular fast fashion marketplace openly brags about adding 6000 new styles, EVERYDAY. “That’s definitely not green” - she adds. Before this comes off as a hit-piece on the fashion industry (god forbid they happen to pay for my next ad-hoc campaign), what about other industries, dear price-sensitive young adults of Singapore?

Do you care if a telco says they are greener than green? “Data!”Do you care if an insurance company claims they’ve planted 10,000 trees with their profits? “They better, I’m paying through my nose!” Do you care if your favourite fast food restaurants have eliminated plastic straws? “I’m quite sure the plastic packaging nullifies that effort.” Do you care at all? “Depends.”

Do NOT drop your green pants

I’m obviously not advocating for a future of filth. I’m immensely proud of the efforts that businesses have put into making themselves sustainable. However, I am anxious about our half-assed efforts of greenwashing in a bid to acquire consumers.

The future is about going back to the fundamentals

We might want to resist our temptation to get loud about our altruistic side as brands during these uncertain times. Consumers tightening their purse strings will inevitably lead to CFOs cutting marketing budgets. Trying to convince them otherwise is as impossible as a deadman trying to lift his gravestone. However, what we can do as marketers is to go back to the fundamentals - Product, Price, Place and Promotion.

I’ll leave it at that. If you find my conclusions highly speculative, I don’t blame you. Have brands been both green and profitable? Maybe. Have brands been profitable because they are green? All I have is my highly scientific Kopifuelled research and anecdotally verified conclusions. Speaking of speculation - nearly 16% of Singaporeans remain invested in cryptocurrency. Pretty filthy. Food for thought for the next time you think of incinerating your marketing budgets on a bout of greenwashing: Remember, actions do speak louder than words.

Skanda Lokeshwaran is senior strategist at BLKJ Havas.

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