Why Should Luxury Companies Care about Sustainability and Social Responsibility?

Running a business through today’s economic downtown is like lightening striking a forest and taking it through a natural burn. The process is extreme, painful to most but ultimately it regenerates the life cycle, weeds out the bottom feeders and propels growth to those who survive. The luxury brands that are struggling to survive this natural dislocation have an obligation to assess their customer profile and marketing mindset and readjust, if warranted, to core prestige principles.  The quintessential core value of a luxury business must be a means of providing a heightened reflective consciousness to its customers by virtue of its goods and services. Twenty first century prestige unequivocally must exude the core values of environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility to remain viable.  

Marrying Elite Brands with CSR
So where does environmentalism and social responsibility fit into this equation? Programs that are beneficial to positive social behavior such as reducing carbon footprint, incorporating sustainability measures on a routine basis and generally being a proponent of the wellbeing of the earth are contemporary means of gaining prestige and elitism. It is the new definition of luxury: It is a state of mind and being that effectively provides prestige, respect and signifies intellectualism. As luxury marketers, one must cater to the emotional and psychological needs of the elite – your primary customer. Failure to actively participant in benevolent environmentalism and promote social responsibility issues in your core values and mission will ultimately erode your brand into extinction.

Championing Causes Equals Prestigue
Sound extreme? The Environmental Leader, a daily trade publication, reported on February 24, 2008 that the celebrity parade arriving at the Oscar Awards ceremony offered a bold eco-friendly statement: 75 celebrities chose to arrive at the event in various types of hybrid or other zero-emission hydrogen-powered vehicles instead of gas- guzzling limos and SUVs. Celebrities took this opportunity to make an obvious public display of their values and beliefs towards sustainable products and practices to influence their fans and mass markets into acting similarly. Luxury marketers should heed the warning that if they can’t provide verifiable sustainability and eco-friendly practices, they risk losing the support of mass-market celebrities to drive their products and brands.

Following are a few guidelines that can steer you toward the process of reinventing your brand and creating heightened equity and image.

Rule #1: Promote your deeds and actions reliably, accurately and without added fluff.
In other words, do not get caught up in overstating your company’s actions. The concept of “greenwashing” was one that took center stage in the late 1990s. The term greenwashing was created to describe those ecological claims that may be insignificant, fraudulent or deceptive in one way or another.  There were numerous large, recognizable names that were caught forcing environmental associations, overstating their benefits or worse, putting out fraudulent messages. It is better to do nothing than to get caught overstating what you are doing. Do not put the public trust and your brand image on the line to make a statement.

Rule #2: The most effective corporate social responsibility and sustainability programs are created from the top down and inside out.
Top executives need to be the engines of this machine and clearly communicate their desire to make changes and set goals for the company and its employees. Corporate communicators need to use their leaders in this light so that employees can see the shift in corporate culture.

When the new corporate culture is defined for the employees, they will embrace the change and it will shift the momentum from the inside out. Employees need to be the first to believe in the CSR and sustainability programs. They will then organically communicate to customers and suppliers their understanding of the cultural shift and feel pride in its benefits and their association with the brand and company.

Rule #3: When communicating with your customers through marketing, public relations and advertising rhetoric, be as specific as possible about the positive effects your environmental programs and initiatives have achieved.
Quantify results. Get the facts on how much you are saving in one manner or another. Studies have shown that customers more often imprint a brand image for a company that makes environmental claims that offer detailed, relevant and supported information on the environmental benefits and social causes for which they are supporting.

Rule #4: Garner third party testimonials that are recognizable and respected.
Using third party testimonials to bolster message credibility is a concept that has been studied in communication research and has presented mixed results. One finding was clear: Credibility of claim and veracity of corporations are serious concerns for consumers. By using third party certifiers that are recognized and well respected, much of the uncertainty can be eliminated and credibility can be supported. Remember the basic rule of PR: If you do the right thing; your stakeholder response might not be earth- shattering; do the wrong thing and the roar will be deafening.

Rule #5: Have meaning behind the message. 
Try to support causes that relate in some way to your company’s products and services to achieve a heightened level of brand equity. Brand equity is a complex, multi-dimensional concept that relates to consumer attitude toward a product or service carrying a delineated brand name. Simply put, brand equity is measured by determining the differential of consumer attitude toward a brand name product or service versus an unnamed product or service, with all other elements being equal.  When planning your CSR and sustainability programs try to find tie-ins that can easily be associated with what your company is marketing. Brand associations are powerful tools that trigger customer memory and create the meaning of the brand for consumers. CSR and environmental messages target the non-product related attributes of your company in a consumer’s memory.

This article will appear in PR News' upcoming Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility and Green PR, Volume 3. It was written by Judith L. Drucker, co-founder of highresolution, a Manhattan based printing and design company. To order the guidebook or find out more information about it, go to www.prnewsonline.com/store.