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Sustainable marketing for travel brands: 5 tips for getting started

Published on By Tara Schwenk

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that tourism needs to change. That means the ways in which we market it must change too.

Written by Lemongrass Marketing, in conjunction with The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and JoAnna Haugen, Rooted: on 31st Jan 2023

People travel to spend time with family and friends, learn about new cultures, participate in adventurous activities, and step away from the daily grind. And the tourism industry has responded: It has minimised the world’s problems and noise with the promise of relaxation, beauty, comfort, and a chance to escape the chaos.

But if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that tourism needs to change. That means the ways in which we market it must change too. “Sustainability” has the makings of a buzzword. Yet, it also holds promise for creating ecosystems that are more inclusive, equitable, accessible, and environmentally and culturally aware.

Enter sustainable marketing. This new approach to marketing mindfully promotes brands’ offerings while considering consumer impact, action, and behaviour.

“Sustainable marketing refers to marketing principles and practices that are aligned with a sustainable future and the long-term wellbeing of all living things,” explains Charlie Thompson, programme director of executive education and co-convener of sustainable marketing, media, and creative at Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

In tourism, this means re-aligning marketing’s purpose so that it supports a sustainable future in the places people travel and rethinking common tourism marketing practices. It also holds brands accountable for the socio-economic, environmental, psychological, and ethical impacts of marketing and public relations work.

This is a paradigm shift in the way we’ve approached travel marketing in the past. But, it is a necessary one in this new era of tourism: “Marketing is a vital part of the sustainability solution. We need the marketing, media, and creative industries to play a critical role in influencing and leading the far-reaching and unprecedented change that the IPCC calls for,” Thompson says, referring to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has noted the urgency needed in slowing the climate crisis.

It isn’t only the IPCC that’s calling for change.

Conscious consumers are increasingly demanding that brands act with integrity.

According to the 5WPR 2022 Consumer Culture Report, 71% of people say they research the ethical and sustainable nature of brands and their supply chains at least occasionally. Additionally, 14% check out brands’ environment and sustainability initiatives every single time they buy a product or service. 30% do this occasionally.

These statistics indicate shifting consumer demands. They also highlight why marketers need to be mindful of messaging that supports their clients’ efforts to attract responsible travellers.

This is all well and good, but what does this shift toward sustainable marketing actually look like in the tourism context? These five key actions will set your new strategy on the right course.

1. Commit to sustainability at the core of all business practices.

behind that messaging doesn’t embrace sustainability throughout its entire ecosystem.

Travel brands can no longer be “neutral” — simply offering that stress-free getaway without impact. Your job as a marketer is to present a real and authentic brand committed to sustainability to the world. That is only possible if the brand is actually committed to the tenets of sustainability.

“The transformation needed will require a radical new understanding of marketing’s impact and what good marketing practice looks like in the context of sustainability,” Thompson says. An example of wrapping sustainable marketing around a company committed to a deep ethical ethos is found in Intrepid Travel’s Global Ethical Marketing Policy. This protocol reflects the company’s mission of creating positive change through the joy of travel.

Similarly, on our journey to becoming a B Corp at Lemongrass Marketing, we also recently developed an ethical marketing policy. It guides all of our interactions with clients — creating a ripple effect of mindful actions in both our company and those with whom we work. This means, for example, that we no longer accept printed brochures and don’t give out swag at our press days.

You can take steps to drive this positive change through your role as a marketer, Thompson notes. “Remember that every marketing decision has an impact. What you do matters.”

2. Measure what matters.

“I think the biggest misunderstanding is that sustainable marketing is simply about selling more sustainable products — that if we consume better solutions everything is fine,” Thompson says. So, yes, sustainability must be built into a company’s ethos. However, the goal is not just about getting people to consume more sustainable travel products or services.

Sustainable marketing requires being aware of the social and environmental consequences of the production and consumption it influences. It’s getting people to think about not just where they will travel and what they will do on their holiday, but how and why they engage in travel experiences.

On that front, marketers need to measure what matters. Instead of focusing on impressions and bookings, quantitative measurements might include how many conservation projects tourist fees funded. Or, the amount of rubbish visitors helped clean up due to a collaboration with a local beach beautification organisation.

Marketers can also encourage clients to take a holistic view of the qualitative benefits of their brand. This might include how travellers’ behaviour has changed as a result of visiting an endangered wilderness area or whether they’ve continued to support local community initiatives even after returning home.

In measuring impact, progress — and not necessarily perfection — is the goal. At Lemongrass, we’re aiming for 25% of all press trips and business trips in 2023 to be carried out by train, ferry, and e-car. It’s a goal that requires extra planning on our side, but the feedback from journalists has been overwhelmingly positive — something we can’t necessarily pin a number on. Yet, we know it has a far greater holistic benefit.

An excellent example of publicly sharing this journey is the sustainability report published by Exodus Travels.
This annual report specifically explains how its work impacts people, places, and the planet — and next steps for continuing to maximise positive impact while minimising negative impact

3. Empower travellers in their decision making.

In this shifting landscape, there is an opportunity for travellers to become more active changemakers and not just the passive visitors they’ve historically been. Statistics show many travellers want to embrace more ethical travel practices. Travel marketing needs to play its part in helping them make more responsible decisions.

This messaging can take a variety of formats: Slow Adventure invites travellers to choose a specific conservation project to monetarily support. Direct Ferries’ carbon calculator lets people compare their carbon footprint based on a variety of transportation options. Fogo Island publishes an Economic Nutrition Label, which itemises travellers’ financial impact. When it is made available, travellers can use this information to inform their decision making — plus it holds travel brands accountable for measuring what matters.

“There are so many opportunities to encourage businesses across the tourism sector to adapt their offering and to inspire people to travel and explore in ways that are less environmentally damaging,” Thompson says. “That opportunity exists everywhere, from attractions and accommodation to recreation and restaurants.”

4. Be mindful of content messaging — across all channels and in all contexts.

In the not-so-distant past, marketers trumpeted their clients with press release headlines like “Instagrammable Spots You Won’t Want to Miss at .” Communication like this flattened destinations and disregarded impacted local communities. It also encouraged overtourism, putting stress on local resources, accelerating gentrification, and harming natural wilderness areas.

While one press release might seem harmless in the grand scheme of things, this kind of messaging across all communication channels has a compounded effect. Think of how many people are reached with content reinforced through social media posts, on websites, presented during live speaking engagements, and emphasised in pre-trip literature. “Tourism is one of the five areas of high-impact consumption identified by the UNEP which means there is huge opportunity and huge accountability for this industry to think critically about what it’s selling, how it’s selling it, and the impact this is having,” Thompson explains.

Marketers need to pay close attention to what messages their content choices do and do not include or emphasise. That messaging needs to carry through the entire customer experience with the product or service.

The Travel Alaska website, for example, amplifies Indigenous Peoples while Hurtigruten Group has lived up to its commitment to equality and inclusivity by launching a Black Traveler Advisory Board. Instead of offering a typical
taste-it-all, wine-and-dine Italian holiday, Slow Adventure introduces visitors to the people who keep traditional wine practices alive while helping preserve the ancient dry stone wall terraces (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) in the Via dei Terrazzamenti. And, a far departure from that Instagram-focused press release, this one — “Meet EightFearless Women Championing Communities Through Tourism” — empowers women and focuses on community connections while still getting clients’ names in the news.

5. Embrace honesty.

Travel may have historically been a way to “escape,” but we live in a world grappling with the climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, political divisiveness, and other challenges. These things don’t go away with a holiday; in fact, they’re right outside every hotel’s front door. The truth is, travelling causes its fair share of negative impacts that the tourism industry needs to openly address — and that includes marketers.

“The term ‘marketing footprint’ refers to the real-world physical impacts of the product, service, or experience that you’re selling. Physical impacts are things like emissions, pollution, waste, habitat loss, human health,” Thompson explains. “The tourism sector has many footprint impacts and, as marketers, we must face the fact that our decisions can scale or curb them.”

There is an overlooked opportunity for travel brands to embrace honesty and be more transparent about those “ugly” aspects of the “real world.” This means, for example, that marketing content can amplify previously under-represented storytellers and communities within the tourism industry — such as efforts like The Conscious Travel Foundation’s ambassador programme, an initiative supported by Lemongrass Marketing, can also encourage travellers to participate in active learning experiences and promote social enterprises like Plastic Whale and Invisible Cities, which are tackling global challenges in a tourism context. (Bonus feature: This more transparent approach often creates the conditions for more interesting travel experiences too!).

Let’s face it: Travel marketers are working with a new understanding of the world and in a new era of tourism. A shift in perspective toward sustainable marketing is an appropriate response. It is also ethically necessary as we chart a path toward a future that is more equitable, more environmentally aware, and actually supports the idea that travel can be a force for good.