Sustainable Life Media’s 2010 Sustainable Brands conference in June brought together design communities, brand marketing professionals and sustainability experts to discuss innovation and the steps towards real sustainable brands. These are brands that achieve positive social and environmental impacts—and solid economic returns. In light of some high-profile examples of corporate waste (see BP oil spill), the sustainable brand model is compelling as the future standard of organizations.
The ultimate question is: Can the power of sustainable brands really spawn game-changing attitudes and innovation?
As green goes from niche to mainstream, we lack a standard for determining what specifically makes up a sustainable brand. “Brand” in turn becomes central to coalescing business strategy and innovation around sustainability.
“The discussion has moved from polar bears to solar panels” says Andrew Winston, founder of Winston Eco-Strategies in Riverside, Conn. “Where we’re going to get our energy is the key question of our time. Today the environmental market for climate change and energy technologies is $2 trillion.”
There are mandated and voluntary changes underway. A new executive order for green procurement is now flowing through federal agencies. Soon, suppliers who sell to Wal-Mart must go green or stop supplying them. The Environmental Protection Agency made it mandatory for certain companies to measure and report greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Beyond that, new businesses, such as marketing company RecycleBank, are giving rewards to consumers and companies who take environmental actions.
Matching Up Sustainability with Brand
According to SVN Marketing, there are 10 main questions to ask when becoming a sustainable brand:
What does it mean to be sustainable?
What’s our carbon footprint?
What’s our sustainability metrics?
Are our sustainability goals and employees aligned?
Where do we fit in a sustainable brand audit framework?
How green are our products?
Are our environmental claims accurate?
Who are our sustainability stakeholders and how do they perceive us?
What sustainable products and services can be innovated?
How do we communicate our sustainable progress and environmental messages?
Brands that don’t first address these questions—or clean up their toxicity before staging a green PR and marketing campaign—can easily fall into green washing, misstating their green message, which derails the brand by losing public trust. Tom LaForge, global director of knowledge and insights at Coca-Cola in Atlanta, says that marketing and PR’s value derives from what only humans can do: storytelling, cultural leadership and aesthetic design. “The brands that are doing well and that have a sustainability story will be the brands that stand out,” says LaForge.
Enter Sun Chips, a prime example of a sustainable brand due to its biodegradable packaging. From print ads to press releases, Sun Chips’ brand story is explained both in a sustainability context and brand messaging context. Stories like these can be influential. Studies show that most consumers will buy based on sustainability if all other desired product attributes remain comparable.
Sustainability Brand Audit Mapping
To be successful in sustainable branding, you must first align sustainability operationally and later communicate it. After all, sustainability is a mega-size challenge better told through story telling than “at you” PR messages.
Jennifer Rice, principal at Fruitful Strategy in San Francisco, takes a prototypical brand audit framework and aligns sustainability into five stages:
Stage 1: Laggard Brands
Stage 2: Trial brands
Stage 3: Emergent brands
Stage 4: Integrated brands
Stage 5: Transformative brands
You can use these stages to audit, map and assess where your brand fits within a sustainable brand alignment spectrum. Are you a brand laggard and could you be more green, or do you need to innovate a green sub-brand without offending existing customers? Scenarios will vary. Once you map your brand’s sustainability stage, you can revisit the above 10 questions and discuss ways to evolve your brand.
Sustainable Brands Realigning the World
Brands deliver context and experiences. They can create opportunities to address matters most important to us as a society. Sustainability-minded companies like Timberland has a big product hit with its new Earthkeepers 2.0 boot. Customers can return to a Timberland location and recycle the boot once it’s worn out—it’s later made into a new pair of boots.
Sustainability can be a game changer. Successful sustainable brands use PR and marketing to connect green value to value growth—whether it’s measured by share price, revenue or brand awareness.
Susan Nickbarg is principal at SVN Marketing, a marketing and sustainability consultancy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.