ON THE FRONTLINE: Good Communications

ON THE FRONTLINE: Good Communications

Steve Connor

Over the course of the last decade the world of marketing, design and public relations has seen a significant growth in agencies dedicating all or some of their efforts to sustainability and corporate social responsibility.

As a business founded 13 years ago under the banner of ‘communications for a sustainable future’, Creative Concern’s experience and portfolio in this area of work offers an insight into this relatively new and emerging marketplace, focused on campaigns and communications that are intended to convince individuals, businesses or politicians to make positive changes in realms both small and large, in pursuit of a more progressive and sustainable future.

As a collective of 30 writers, designers, film makers, coders and marketing strategists, we like to think that we create the counterpoint to mainstream advertising, which all too often sustains the unsustainable. Our subject matter ranges from environmental sustainability (energy, transport, ecosystems), to the arts (museums, galleries, tourism) to social sustainability (human rights, health, community regeneration, children issues). Our work is commissioned by a broad spectrum of clients and partners drawn from the public, private, academic and voluntary sectors.

Sustainability communications as a field of endeavour can draw in everything from reputation management, brand development and corporate reporting through to mass-engagement campaigns, industry initiatives, supply chain sustainability and of course, issues based campaigns led by NGOs and activists.

Here I’d like to focus on a number of campaigns which we’ve developed at Creative Concern that would broadly sit under the banner of ‘environmental behavioural change’.  These commissions are almost always won competitively, and as they are developed will see us rely on a number of inputs such as audience insights, previous campaign examples, socio-political context and the overarching brand and narrative of the commissioning organisation. Our work will often see us integrate with an in-house team, working towards their existing social or sustainability goals.

One of our earliest large-scale campaigns, in 2005, was around climate change on a city scale and how to help a large cohort of people, across every walk of life consider a shift in their behaviour (see here for a full case study): an initiative called ‘Manchester is my Planet’. We kicked off a CO2 pledge using viral networks, street teams and online campaigning to encourage as many people as possible to take ten simple low cost actions that would reduce their carbon emissions.

Launching at Gay Pride in August 2005, by December of that year the campaign team had secured 12,000 individual pledges across Greater Manchester. High level support and endorsements were critical in building momentum and included Manchester council leaders, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Sir Howard Bernstein Diane Modahl and England goalkeeper David James. Media coverage reached an estimated audience of 4.7 million and had an estimated advertising value of £200,000. By the end of 2016   the campaign had reached 20,000+ pledges with an estimated c.44,600 tonnes of CO2 being saved annually through the actions pledged.

Manchester is my Planet (MIMP) was a very early test of what another communications agency, Futerra, had crafted in their ‘Rules of the Game’ plan for effective climate change communications. In its explicit appeal to local pride, group ownership of change and shared agency with peer groups, it was also we believe a very early exploration of the factors set out by the Sustainable Development Commission.

The project’s strength lay in the very broad partnership that included employers, sports clubs, universities, public organizations, charities and climate change campaign groups. Through these willing partners the campaign materials and messaging were ‘transmitted’ to our audiences very effectively, with the appeal to take our pledge increasing in its traction when delivered via a contact point (e.g. sports club) that has a stronger personal connection.

Weaknesses in the project included lack of traditional media engagement (climate change wasn’t seen as an editorial priority for the local TV stations in particular) and no long term engagement plan for those who were taking the pledge, beyond sending them some carbon-reducing tips and following this up with a survey and subsequent newsletters. However, it was strong enough to be followed as an example in other cities – ‘Sheffield is My Planet’ launched shortly afterwards.

Our team’s learning through MIMP was significant and can be traced through a whole series of future campaigns with measurable outcomes. In the Welsh borough of Wrexham we used similar techniques to reduce carbon emissions across the borough, and the Council, using a ‘me too’ approach of identifiable people from all walks of life featuring in a ‘People Power’ poster campaign with a pledge website, activity days, workshops and schools engagement programme. We also used a series of climate scenarios developed by the University of Manchester’s EcoCities project to run ‘futurecasting’ workshops with senior management.

As a pilot campaign the activity was deemed a success across the council and across the borough’s schools, saving energy worth around £30,000 and around 180 tonnes of CO2e. The less successful campaign pilot was a community-engagement campaign in one local area where more face-to-face communications could have held the key to a greater level of take up.

The Wrexham campaign used a ‘local heroes’ approach with the Council and local schools as ‘transmitters’ of the message.The creative approach was positive, empowering and focused on agency, rather than the overwhelming threat of climate change. Messages and materials developed were subsequently utilised as part of a successor campaign deploying 3,000 photovoltaic roofs across the borough.

We’ve explored behaviour change around energy subsequently with a number of clients. Our most recent and in-depth energy-related behavioural campaign has been with the Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. The Trust’s new lead for sustainability called our team in to help her implement a programme of activity to help staff at the Trust – medical and non-medical – become aware of their energy consumption and change their behaviour to reduce it.

Our team began by a period of research to understand what kinds of activities NHS Trusts have coordinated on this theme in the past, before moving on to a programme of consultation with Central Manchester’s staff base. We learnt about the challenges faced by staff when carrying out their daily activities, and the existing energy related problems onsite. The most fascinating obstacle, staff told us, was not knowing which items of electrical equipment and machinery could be turned off at the end of a shift or when not in use. Creatively we needed a campaign of signposting and permission to act, which was, in many respects, co-created with our target audience.

Staff in all areas recognized the importance of a reduction in energy consumption, and were keen to participate, so a Trust-wide campaign was introduced. We worked with staff to work up the campaign identity and key messages and copy before producing posters and stickers , displays, media support and a campaign film.

Central to the creative response was the ‘Green Heart’ character, who went on a travelling roadshow to encourage staff to come and collect their campaign materials, and meet with patients and visitors to explain the purpose of the campaign.  The green heart was chosen as it fused together energy saving with a central message of health and healthcare (a tactic previously deployed successfully by St Barts) and in our messaging this double-hit was repeatedly emphasized; switch off lights and help a patient sleep more soundly; close a door and reduce draughts in a ward; reduce resource costs and double the effectiveness of fundraisers.

The Green Heart campaign in particular shows our team’s increasing move towards co-production with an organization or place to shape and craft a behavioural campaign. By mapping behaviours, prompts and even creative routes with medium to large groups of engaged stakeholders, the results are much more likely to be ‘owned’ by the audience and to result in a greater level of changed behaviour.

Some common themes emerge from the campaigns that we’ve run. They include an appeal to intrinsic values (rather than tactics of nudge, for example), and very often an attempt to create cut through by using humour as a substitute for the appeals to extrinsic values often to be found in mainstream advertising. There is a consistent attempt to generate a sense of ‘new social norms’ ensuring that the shifted modes of behaviour being promoted are seen as something fully compatible with ‘everyday life’ rather than being the preserve of a radical fringe.

Critically our campaigns are crafted with the same creativity and design values you would expect to find in the promotion of mainstream commercial markets. Make it gorgeous, straightforward and accessible; be innovative, do your homework, co-produce whenever the opportunity arises and if you can, always create a smile inside.

As a body of work our campaigns have developed from mass appeals to ‘do good’ with MIMP to campaigns that also use triggers such as social norms, local pride, inter-generational equity and even a sense of justice, when needed. This continued shifting of tactics and argument we believe show that the wider arena of sustainability communications continues to be a field of constantly evolving and changing practice.


Steve Connor is the founder of Creative Concern, a multidisciplinary practice working with clients including War on Want, Friends of the Earth, Sustrans, Energy Savings Trust, Asda, Kelloggs, Transport for Greater Manchester, the Forestry Commission, the Woodland Trust, BBC, UNESCO,


Picture credit: Creative Concern